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Back in the U.S. during the easy '20s, Cohen became a credit man, then developed a new angle of his own. He bought into small insurance companies, pyramided their stocks on the rising market. After the crash he bought more, paying the book value of their shares (higher than the market) on condition he be lent the money to buy out the other stockholders. By 1932 he controlled companies with assets of $300,000,000.
Some bad luck after the bank holiday cost Frank Cohen a good deal of his fortune, but when war began he was still a wealthy man. He was also known in the more anonymous purlieus of Wall Street as a smart man with a dollar. That is why, in May 1940, he was sought out by a group of promoters and engineers led by Raymond Voyes (formerly of Bofors) and Ferdinand V. Huber (freelance gun merchant). More or less at liberty, they thought it would be a good time to get back into the munitions business.
But Nobody Buys. Cohen agreed. His part was to be purely financial. He interested the owners of Willys-Overland (Ward Canaday, G. W. Ritter, others) who put up 200,000 shares of Willys stock and $120,000 in cash. Empire Ordnance bought the old Pencoyd works, rebuilt the plant and renovated its machinery. By September the infant company had spent the $120,000, but it still had no contracts. Since the old days, the munitions business had apparently changed.
By this time Cohen's associates wanted to get out. It was up to Frank Cohen to buy them out, or get out too. He knew no more about gun-making than a Wall Street customer's man. But meanwhile France had fallen, the British had faced Dunkirk, and the U.S. was trying to arm. So he borrowed some money from old Wall Street cronies like Elisha Walker, paid off the Willys crowd, recapitalized Empire (keeping control) and went to work.
His first experience was with U.S. Army Ordnance, to whom he thrice submitted bids on guns (75s and 105s), was thrice low man, was thrice turned down. The Army was suspicious of newcomers. When a Cohen emissary finally sought a showdown with a noted Army brass hat, he was told that Empire's last bid was $3,000 too high. Cohen produced the bid: it was $2,970 per gun. Flustered, the Army not only apologized ("typographical error"), but sent him across the street to the British, with an introduction.
The British were leery too, at first. But they looked over his plant, and they looked over Frank Cohen. At length, in his office, they read the answer to a lot of the questions in their British minds. It was the ad from the New York Times of March 27, 1933, which hung framed on his wall. Last Nov. 25, they gave him a contract (about $8,000,000) for 1,550 75-mm. guns.
We're Off. Frank Cohen is no production man, but he knows how to get men who are. He had originally staffed his little plant on the Schuylkill by going direct to various "40-Plus Clubs," groups of chin-up engineers and mechanics who thus advertised the reason they were out of work. In expanding for the British order, Cohen next hired instructors from the Delehanty Institute to train the raw labor he picked up. When he opened the West Pittston Iron Works (near Wilkes-Barre) to machine steel plates, 343 of the 350 men hired were from the coal mines. They went to school four nights a week, now operate drills and finishing machinery in three shifts, 24 hours a day.