C.S. Mott: A man for all seasons
He got rich making axles for GM, then used his wealth for the public good
A Forbes magazine article on Dec. 9, 1922, said, "Who is Charles S. Mott? Outside of his own state and his own industry, he is not very widely known, largely because he is no seeker after publicity, no courter of the limelight. He is, and always has been, a doer rather than a talker. His brain works better than his tongue."
Calling Mott a doer was an understatement. He was always ahead of the curve.
He was born in Newark, N.J., in 1875, and attended the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., where he earned a degree in mechanical engineering. At 19, he joined the New York Naval Militia and became a chief gunner's mate.
He worked for his father for a year until the Spanish-American War began. He then joined the U.S. Navy as a gunner's mate.
After his father died in 1900, he took a job with one of the family's companies, Weston-Mott Co. of Utica, N.Y., which made wire wheels and rims for bicycles, carriages and other vehicles. He soon realized that cars were the future and began making automobile axles.
Sold his auto parts company to GM in 1912 for more than 1 million shares of GM stock
Became a GM executive; was a board member from 1913 until his death in 1973
Served 3 terms as mayor of Flint, Mich.
During World War I, as an Army major, oversaw production of U.S. Army vehicles in Michigan and Indiana
Established Charles Stewart Mott Foundation in 1926
To Flint and GM
Axle demand increased dramatically, and as Michigan became the hub for automaking, it made sense to Mott to move the company. In 1906, Billy Durant, then president of Buick, wooed Mott to Flint, Mich., with $100,000 worth of free land for his plant and the guarantee of all of Buick's axle business, according to William Pelfrey's book Billy, Alfred, and General Motors.
Durant formed General Motors in 1908 — the same year Henry Ford launched the Model T. Durant sold 8,487 Buicks that year and purchased Oldsmobile. The next year he brought in Oakland (now Pontiac) and Cadillac.
Mott, a hard worker, loved running his business. He was considered an excellent manager and believed in developing his work force so they didn't need much supervision. "I began organizing myself out of a job," he told Forbes.
In My Years with General Motors, Alfred Sloan noted that his original connection with GM was with Mott. They knew each other because Mott's company was a major customer of Sloan's Hyatt Roller Bearing Co.
Sloan said, "Through Weston-Mott, I succeeded in getting Hyatt roller bearings into GM cars."
GM acquired 49 percent of Weston-Mott stock in 1909 and the rest in 1912. That made Mott wealthy and gave him the opportunity to turn his mind toward public service.
"When it reached the point where Weston-Mott was doing 60 percent of its business with GM, Mott consented to exchange his majority holdings for GM stock," Forbes said. Mott "acquired a block of General Motors stock, both common and preferred, and he added extensively to his holdings." He received more than a million shares.
In 1913 he became a member of the GM board of directors, a position he held until his death in 1973. He was an active director. In the early years his corporate job was group executive in charge of the car divisions. As a director, he accompanied Sloan to Europe in 1919 to assess GM's overseas prospects.
In 1922 he was appointed to the executive committee of the board — "the highest body in the operating structure" of GM, according to Sloan. Mott remained a member of that committee until his death.
Mott became mayor of Flint in 1912 and served three terms. While in office, he improved sewers, streets, sidewalks and the fire department. He took a businesslike approach to get things done efficiently.
Forbes put it this way: "When he was mayor of Flint, he would personally visit poor people who sent in complaints or tales of woe, and sometimes, when it was not within the province of the city to extend relief, Mr. Mott did so himself without saying a word to anyone."
Back to the military
Mott again joined the military during World War I, as a major in the Army stationed in Detroit. He oversaw production of U.S. Army vehicles in Michigan and Indiana, according to Forbes.
Jeff Taylor, curator of collections at the Sloan Museum in Flint, said Mott once was the largest personal stockholder in GM.
"He had a good sense of humor and was not into putting on airs. He ate lunch at the local department store and bought his clothes off the rack," Taylor said. Mott liked Chevrolet Corvairs and owned a series of them.
Mott had three children with his first wife and three more with his fourth wife, Ruth, Taylor said. The home where Mott and Ruth lived, Applewood, today is operated by the Ruth Mott Foundation. Daughter Maryanne Mott is president of the foundation's board of trustees.
Mott established the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation in 1926. An article on the foundation by Grand Valley State University graduate student Tobiasz Warminski said Mott used 2,000 shares of GM stock (valued at $320,000) to start the foundation. Grants initially were made to Flint service organizations and to colleges.
Today the foundation focuses on improving the environment, fighting worldwide poverty, helping the Flint area and promoting peace and social justice. At the end of 2007, the foundation's assets were $2.63 billion.
Bill White has been CEO of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation since 1976 and a board member since 1971. He became board chairman in 1988. He is married to Claire Mott, C.S. Mott's granddaughter.
When asked what C.S. Mott was like, White said: "Depends on which Mr. Mott you were talking to. He was a risk taker. He was a conservative. He and Eleanor Roosevelt got along when it came to providing opportunities for kids.
"He could be tough. An example: We were trying to do a deal in 1971. He was the type of guy, if you didn't have a lot to say, better to keep quiet. I had lunch with him. I started asking him questions. He looks up and says 'Why don't you stop asking me questions. I give better answers than you ask questions.' But he also had a sense of humor and was a practical joker. He came into the office every day. He was sharp as a tack."
In an interview in the Community Education Journal when he was 96, Mott said: "They have prescribed all sorts of names for what I've done, but actually I'm a selfish person. I gave 90 percent of my wealth to the foundation in order to do the things that would give me the greatest amount of pleasure."