Frank Cohen, Munitionsmaker
A year ago, when the U.S. Government began its clumsy effort to rearm, one prominent New Dealer confessed: "I wish we hadn't knocked off all the robber barons. The country sure needs a few now."
By last week the New Dealer's wish seemed to come true in the shape of an astonishing little man named Frank Cohen. Though not exactly a robber baron, Frank Cohen is no overstuffed corporate career man either. He made his money playing shrewd angles around Wall Street. His latest angle, which is armaments, occurred to him for other reasons than profit. But he played it just as hard as if it meant millions. In so doing he became one of the men the U.S. needed.
For months the defense industry attracted little or no business interest. Big corporations saw no money in it, little ones did not know the Washington ropes, nobody wanted to be a "Merchant of Death." The void ached for some self-starting, corner-cutting American enterprise; it almost seemed there was none left. But there was.
This week, when Savannah Shipyards, Inc. clears its credit arrangements with Savannah bankers, Frank Cohen will be off on the third lap of a meteoric defense career. Frank Cohen's company, Empire Ordnance Inc. (whose stockholders own Savannah Shipyards), is less than one and a half years old. It began in May 1940 as a shoestring gamble whose only property was a broken-down 89-year-old iron foundry near Philadelphia called the Pencoyd Iron Works.
In the last eleven months, Empire has expanded into 14 corporations, six plants and a shipyard. It is now delivering every month $1,000,000 worth of guns, gun mounts, recoils and tank armor to the British, has a $37,000,000 munitions backlog, and last month got an $18-20,000,000 contract from the Maritime Commission for a dozen 10,000-ton "Victory" ships. It has 3,000 employes and will soon have 4,000 more. There is not a dollar of U.S. Government or even public money in the whole capital structure.
The Remarkable Cohen. ". . . We submit that the United States Government should not recognize the present German Government . . . until the present German Government demonstrates that it will honor its human obligations." So read a quarter-page advertisement in the New York Times, March 27, 1933. It was signed "Frank Cohen and Family, All Native Americans."
In some ways, Frank Cohen is an exceptional kind of American, but he does not look it. Short (5 ft. 4 in.), rotund (180 lb.), 48, he grew up in New York City and went to Columbia, where he wrote a Ph.D. thesis on what was then (1916) the revolutionary theory of an annual wage for seasonal industries. Intending to teach, he was so irritated by the blank laughter his views aroused among businessmen that he went into business himself. His first venture was an unlikely scheme to sell U.S. oil products in bulk to Palestine. The first shipment netted him $20,000, and in three years he had 40% of the market.