Charlie Lofgren

There is only one way to begin the story of the Sharpie Marker, and that is to introduce Mr. Charles W Lofgren  He was addressed as Mr. Lofgren, or sometimes "Chuck" by the employees of Sanford Ink Company, aka Sanford Corporation.  My colleagues and I at some point began calling him "Charlie" among ouselves.  Charles Lofgren was presiding over the fortunes of the Sanford Ink Company when I joined the firm in 1965, and was still presiding over it with the new name of Sanford Corporation when I left Sanford employment in 1979. There was another Charlie who was a husband, father, grandfather and very much a family man. But as Charlie would remind me whenever I erred by trying to turn our conversation to his personal life, Charlie Lofgren the family man stayed at home when Charlie the businessman went to work, and the President of the company stayed at work when Charlie the family man went home. Of his personal life I only recall he had a daughter named Jane, and his wife was a member of the Carpenter family. His wife’s first name I do not recall. In addition to that, I recall Henry Pearsall, Charlie’s son-in-law.  Henry took over the company upon Charlie’s retirement.


No one ever questioned who controlled everything that happened at Sanford. Charlie was Number One. If you wanted to call him on the company phone, you simply picked up the company phone and dialed 1. That connected you to Charlie. When Charlie pulled up to the front door of the Sanford Building he parked at the reserved spot directly in front of the entrance. If Charlie wasn’t there for some reason, that parking spot remained empty. It was reserved for him only.  The license plate of Charlie’s Cadillac was 2740. That is because the address of the Sanford Building was 2740 West Washington Boulevard.


Charlie wasn’t just in charge of everything that happened at Sanford, he also knew everything that happened at Sanford, and the two are not always the same thing. Furthermore, whatever happened at Sanford was what Charlie wanted to happen at Sanford. Those two were the same thing. When things went array as they sometimes did, Charlie would fix them.


Quality of the Sanford products was always at the top of the list for Charlie Lofgren. He started with the company as a salesman, and was still a salesman when he left the company.   Other areas of the company were of importance, but the sales staff was alone at the top of the list. And it was Charlie’s belief that for a salesman to do his job, he had to absolutely believe that the product he was selling was the best in the business. Charlie instilled that belief in his sales staff, and he would allow nothing but the very best product on the market to support what he was telling the salesmen.


Charlie was uncanny in the way he was able to identify problems as they occurred, and took immediate action when he found them. I had only been with Sanford a few months when on a Friday afternoon Keith Beal, the research director to who I directly reported, called me into his office and told me that the entire lab, which included about 5 employees, was instructed to report to work Saturday. And since we were salaried employees, that meant working without pay. Keith went on to explain what had happened. “Mr. Lofgren”, Kieth explained, “went out into the warehouse, opened a box of Accent Markers, pulled the cap off one of them, and the marker had no ink in it. So we have to come to work tomorrow to open and inspect every Accent Marker in inventory”.   And that was a lot of markers in inventory.


It was a laboratory function to routinely sample the products as they were manufactured, inspect them for quality assurance, and shut down the production line if anything was not up to standards. Obviously, the lab had failed to catch this problem, so we were required to correct it by inspecting every marker in inventory. At the end of a long Saturday we reported our findings. Charlie had managed to walk into the warehouse, open a single box of markers, and find the only marker in the whole inventory that had somehow missed being filled with ink.   And that ….. was Charlie.


Charlie wore a business suit to work everyday. I never saw him in casual attire, but that was not unusual for businessmen in the 1960s and 70s. His ruddy complexion was rumored to be directly related to the bar that he kept in his private office He smoked almost continually, and when he wasn’t drawing on is cigarette, he held it close to his chest in a characteristic manner. His voice boomed when he talked. And none of this was for show. Charlie didn’t put on a show. He was who he was, and it was as simple as that.


I have some favorite recollections that demonstrate how Charlie ran his company. Two of these memories took place when the factory employees decided to bring in the labor union. Charlie made it a policy to make certain he paid the labor force a fair rate comproable to other employers in the area.  But the day came when the labor force decided to take a vote to organize, and the vote passed.


I will give the two memories in reverse of their occurrence. The second one occurred shortly after the vote was final, and dealing with organized labor in his factory was a fact of life that Sanford would have to deal with. Charlie’s son-in-law Henry Pearsall had joined the company by that time. Something was taking place that involved a visit from someone important, but I don't recall who it was. When Lunch time came I got a call from Charlie’s secretary to join Charlie, Francis Gilbert, Henry, and the visitor for lunch at Charlie’s country club. We all rode in Charlie’s Cadillac, and on the way back the polite, informal conversation was taking place. Henry was driving. Whatever the conversation was about, it had nothing to do with business. And somewhere in the middle of that conversation, Charlie abruptly said without even looking at the driver, “Henry, I want direct labor on the Sharpie cut by 30%”.


Henry didn’t even look at Charlie. He just kept on driving down the road and answered, “Yes sir”.   The decision came just that fast and was that simple. And then the conversation went back to whatever it had been. As soon as we got back to the factory Henry called Bronco Duke from the machine shop into his office and gave Barnco the responsibility of constructing automatic machines for the production of the Sharpie. Before long Sharpies were being assembled by machines that required a single operator who simply kept hoppers full of parts. Hand assembly and semi-automatic equipment were a thing of the past. And production costs were cut by 30%.


The other thing I remember that gives us a look at the other side of Charlie Lofgren was a meeting of company managers that was called just before factory employees took their vote for organizing. As intense as Charlie was one might think he had an insatiable appetite for making money. But there was a lot more to him than that.   Before the vote was taken, he wanted to share with his managers some of his thoughts on life and what was important, and the next thing I knew Charlie was crying. He had one family at home, and another one at 2740 West Washington. Both were dear to him. His Sanford family was splitting, and it reduced him to tears.


Here is a third memory that is one of my favorites. Charlie was a classic Chicago Democrat. It was election year 1972. Things looked bad for the Democrats, at least as far as the presidency was concerned with Richard Nixon running against George McGovern. This bothered him, so he asked me to take a poll of the workforce to see who the Sanford family would vote for - Nixon or McGovern. What he hoped to learn is something I didn’t know. Perhaps he was just looking for a reason to be optimistic. However, I did as I was told, and reported back to him the results. For president, the Sanford work force preferred George Wallace.


For those too young to remember these things, Wallace was a Southern Democrat running on a third party ticket. He represented the last vestige of segregation in the Deep South. The Sanford work force was not even close to being in support of George Wallace for President, especially considering there were a considerable number of African Americans working at Sanford. But at that time the workers at Sanford were still a family, and they knew Charlie’s staunch political feelings. They just wanted to have some fun with him.


Most certainly there have been other people who have had Charlie’s command of presence. But Charlie was, and still is the only one I have ever known. When he walked into a room he took all the oxygen out of it. He talked, we listened. He asked questions, we gave answers. And we gave answers knowing he was not only listening, but analyzing. If we gave him an answer, we had better be able to defend it. But I will always believe that Charlie was aware of how he could intimidate people by his simple presence, and that his real genius as a businessman was his ability to put people at ease while at the same time holding control of all situations. He was a leader rather than a dictator. His employees knew that if they didn’t follow, he could push. But at the same time he knew when to push and when to pull.  


Included in this secton is one of my favoriet Charlie Lofgren stories.  It is included in included in my book, The Shappie Stories.