Francis E Gilbert, V P
Charlie Lofgren and Francis Gilbert worked together at Sanford like a pitcher and catcher in a baseball game. One without the other just wouldn’t work. Charlie had a very good sense of business and business strategy. Francis had a good sense of these things also and connected to them very well. But while Francis’ business skills were considerable on their own, his biggest asset on the team was the way he brought to life Charlie’s visionary inspirations.
Francis did more than just apply technical know-how to new product schemes. He knew Charlie inside and out. He knew when to challenge Charlie and when to stay out of his road. He knew when to suggest something and when to insist on it. More than once when we faced a difficulty in production or in the development of a new product, Francis told me that nothing would get done without Charlie’s cooperation, and that would have to wait until Charlie’s was in the right mood so Francis could discuss it with him. There were times when Charlie reacted with emotions and there were times when he took the time to be reasonable. The two did not always overlap.
Francis was a little more open to telling me things about the history of the company than Charlie. He wasn’t one to live in the past, but he did learn as he went along, and remembered his lessons. Some of those he would share with me.
On one occasion he was attempting to explain how Charlie’s temperament had to be considered when there were decisions to be made. As an example he told me how, when the felt tip marker was a new product to the company, for the first few years of the product life there was a routine that the two of them went through ever winter. Charlie had wanted an aluminum shell for the body of his felt tip marker because it was rugged and gave the user a feeling of quality when using it. The other option was to use a plastic molded body for the marker. That is what was done for the Sharpie marker. But the standard felt tip marker was Aluminum because that is what Charlie wanted.
Technically, this presented a problem because the cap which was secured on the aluminum body was molded plastic. This meant that the cap would swell and shrink with changes in heat and humidity while the aluminum body remained dimensionally stable. The result was a cap that fit too tight in the dry winter months, and that fit too loose in the hot humid months.
Charlie was always personally checking the quality of the products by going into the warehouse and inspecting the stock for any obvious quality problems. In the winter he could find caps fitting so tight it was difficult taking them off, and he would call Francis to complain that the molding operation was not holding the dimensions on the cap and it was time to rework the molds.
Francis told me that, “For the first few years after Sanford introduced their felt tip marker, Charlie would come to me insisting that we rework the molds. I would tell him that would be a mistake because if we made them larger, they would be to loose when summer came” .
“Lofgren wouldn’t believe me”, he chuckled. We often used his last name much as casually as a first name. “I would put him off for a long as I could, but after awhile he would come to me and insist that we expand the molds. When that happened, I would make a bet with him. I would bet him $10 that I could take samples of those markers with tight fitting caps into the lab and expose them to heat and humidity. After three days under those conditions he would consider the caps too lose”.
“He would take the bet in a minute. He refused to believe that plastic can change dimensionally that much with swings in heat and humidity. It was comical to watch. He would pick a dozen of the tightest fitting caps he cold find, and I would place them under humid lab conditions for three days. Then we would go to the lab together and I would allow him to do the inspection. The caps would be so loose they would almost fall off.
I laughed, knowing as I did that the caps were molded from nylon. This plastic is often chosen for plastic components because, as plastic molding resins go, it is both rugged and inexpensive. But its expansion under humidity exposure is to great and so rapid that it was often used as the coil in inexpensive humidity gauges.
Francis concluded his story, “Every year we would go through this. He was just too stubborn to learn. Every year he would take my bet, and every year I would take his money”
And then in typical Francis Gilbert fashion he added, “I really felt guilty taking his money. I even offered to return it. But it was the only way I could get him to listen to reason, so I did what I had to do”.
“You felt guilty taking his money”? I asked. “”I’ll tell you what. If he ever needs another lesson, just send him to me”.