In our modern era, extending a seat at the table to workers perhaps seems commonplace. But a century ago, corporate decisions were made by a select and favored few, with often no regard for laborers. One of the business leaders who helped to change that was John J. Eagan, the forward-thinking president of Birmingham-based ACIPCO.
Eagan was born in 1870 in Griffin, Georgia. After his father died, Eagan and his mother came under the care of her brother, William Russell, who ran an Atlanta tobacco business. When Russell died, he left the company and real estate holdings valued at $750,000 (akin to $27 million today) to Eagan. Before his 30th birthday, Eagan was a wealthy man.
Despite its success, Eagan soon divested himself of the tobacco business he inherited. As a devout Christian, he believed there were better ways to make a living. In time, a new opportunity arose for Eagan to join an Alabama-based company working to bring clean water and sanitation services to American cities.
This new endeavor was the brainchild of pioneering businesswoman Charlotte Blair. She began her career as a stenographer for Virginia pipe magnate J. K. Dimmick. In 1900, when Dimmick opened a facility in Alabama, he placed the capable Blair in charge of sales, which also made her the first woman in Alabama to sit on a corporate board. A few years later, the increasing demand for cast-iron pipes convinced Blair of the need for a new Birmingham-based company. She lined up five investors, including John J. Eagan, and chartered the American Cast Iron Pipe Co. (ACIPCO) in October 1905. Eagan served as president.
The first pipes were cast in mid-May 1906. In short order, ACIPCO employed some 400 workers and had a production capacity of 150 tons of pipe a day. Initial orders helped the company weather the Panic of 1907. In time, ACIPCO would create innovative cement-lined pipes and other important technological advances.
The company’s success assured Eagan’s personal wealth and status. “Never again do I expect to entangle myself in active business,” he wrote to a friend in 1911. Confident in the management of ACIPCO, he pledged to “devote all my time and income to the advancement of the Kingdom of God.” In 1915, Eagan stepped down as president and became chairman of ACIPCO’s board of directors. But his influence over the company remained strong, guided by his faith and tenets of the Progressive Era’s “social gospel.” Eagan came to see improving the working and living conditions of the men who toiled in his company as a means of living out his faith.
ACIPCO’s workers soon saw manifestations of this commitment, through overtime and sick pay, affordable housing and with the construction of a modern bathhouse and medical facilities. In 1915, the company opened a savings bank for employees and offered generous interest payments. A pension plan soon followed, open to employees who had given at least 15 years of uninterrupted dedicated service. For more immediate needs, ACIPCO offered workers the opportunity to pay into a mutual benefit association. Initial payments were 10¢ a week, deducted from wages. Sick or injured employees temporarily out of work received a weekly $6.00 stipend.
Eagan shirked the role of the beneficent overseer that more paternalistic industry leaders wore so easily. Rather, he viewed such improvements not as charity, but as a reflection of workers’ rightful share in the company they helped build. This viewpoint helped make ACIPCO’s workforce rank among the industry’s most stable and contented. But Eagan felt more could still be done. In 1921, he returned as president and announced a series of new initiatives based upon the application of the biblical principle of the “Golden Rule” to industry: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you.”
There were doubters aplenty. But Eagan was undeterred. “What a tremendous responsibility it puts upon us,” he wrote to his wife in December 1921. He was no distant supervisor during these frenetic years. He spent his workweeks in Birmingham and took a train home to his family in Atlanta on Friday afternoons.
In the spring of 1922, Eagan announced an employee profit-sharing program and a new management model, which placed worker representatives at the company’s decision-making table. The move by Eagan made the front page of the Birmingham News. The article included an image of the “board of operatives” under the headline “Men in Whom Pipe Works Places Future.” Four workmen, dressed in well-worn coveralls and denim sat at the table alongside company executives in fine, dark suits. It was a fitting depiction of ACIPCO’s new era. That year, employees responded to Eagan’s reorganization with record-breaking production numbers.
Eagan then set into motion the final part of his plan. After years of assiduously collecting the nearly 1,100 shares of common stock in the company, he added a codicil to his will leaving all of it to ACIPCO’s employees in perpetuity.
Hampered by declining health, Eagan died on March 3, 1924. The Atlanta Journal eulogized him as “a good man, an able man, a rare man.” ACIPCO’s employee publication proclaimed that Eagan “shall be a silent adviser in our future councils. His wishes…shall govern our acts. His ideals, his policies, his principles are engraven on our hearts.”
A generation later, as ACIPCO prepared to mark its 50th anniversary, its 2,100 employees raised funds to erect a bronze statue of Eagan at the company’s Birmingham headquarters. On April 22, 1955, on what would have been Eagan’s 85th birthday, his grandchildren unveiled the monument while a choir sang “The Lord’s Prayer.”
Over the long century since Eagan’s death, ACIPCO has grown in size and in the diversity of its products. Still, the gospel of shared ownership, mutual uplift and the application of the “Golden Rule” to industry remain the company’s unchanging core. One has to imagine this fact would give John J. Eagan surpassing pride.
Historian Scotty E. Kirkland is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. He lives in Wetumpka.
This article appears in the September 2023 issue of Business Alabama.