Wilson, Charles E.
Charles Erwin Wilson was the 10th president of the General Motors. He was served in that position from January 6, 1941 until January 26, 1953, when he left the corporation to accept a position in the Eisenhower Cabinet. He also served as Chief Executive Officer beginning in 1946 until the time of his departure.
He was born in Minerva, Ohio, July 18, 1890, the son of Thomas E. and Rosalind Unkefer Wilson. His father, a graduate of Mt. Union College, was principal of the Minerva school, in which his mother also had been a teacher. His grandmother on his mother's side was a Purdue before her marriage to Jeremiah Unkefer and both the Unkefers and the Purdues were early settlers in the Minerva district.
C. E. Wilson attended public school in Mineral City, Ohio, where the family moved when he was four years old. When he was 14 the family moved to Pittsburgh, where he was graduated from Bellevue High School. He attended the Carnegie Institute of Technology and was graduated in 1909 as an electrical engineer.
Shortly after, Wilson was employed by the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company as a student apprentice. He remained in the employ of Westinghouse, in the Pittsburgh district, for the following 10 years. For two years, during his early experience at Westinghouse, he was student assistant to B. G. Lamme, chief engineer, and he credits Mr. Lamme for much of the early training in engineering that brought his later successes. In his work at Westinghouse he was brought into touch also with automobile manufacturers and learned the importance of costs and of volume manufacturing, in addition to obtaining an excellent training in the practical application of engineering knowledge.
In 1912 Wilson designed the first automobile starting motors made by Westinghouse and in 1916 was given charge of all its automobile electrical equipment engineering. During World War I he was in charge of design and development of Westinghouse radio generators and dynamotors for the Army and Navy.
Wilson joined General Motors in April 1919, as chief engineer of the Remy Electric Company, a General Motors subsidiary headquartered in Anderson, Indiana. He initiated a redesigning program that materially helped in putting the Remy Electric operations on a sound financial basis. In December 1921, he was made factory manager. In December 1924, he became assistant general manager, and in February 1925, general manager.
A year later, when the Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company was added to the Remy Electric Company, Wilson became president and general manager of the newly organized Delco-Remy Corporation which then had about 12,000 employees.
During the next two years Delco-Remy, under his direction, developed the Lovejoy shock absorbers, industrial motors for refrigeration and washing machines, automobile lamps and Delco batteries. At the end of 1928 Delco-Remy was operating in four cities. It has the production of electrical equipment for motorcars concentrated in Anderson, Indiana; shock absorbers and industrial motors in Dayton, Ohio; automobile lamps in Anderson and Cleveland, and batteries in Muncie, Indiana.
In January 1929, Mr. Wilson was named assistant to the president of GM and was transferred to Detroit. In May 1929, he was made a vice president of General Motors. The next two or three years he was especially interested in acquiring properties to expand the corporation's activities, and in developing its parts and accessory business. In this period he arranged for the purchase of the following properties and businesses: Winton Engine Company and Electro-Motive Company of Cleveland; Northeast Electric Company of Rochester; Allison Engineering Company of Indianapolis; Sunlight Electrical Company and Packard Electric Company of Warren, Ohio; and McKinnon Industries, Ltd., of St. Catherine’s, Ontario. He also assisted in arranging for the purchase of minority interests in Bendix Aviation Corporation and what would be known under the GM umbrella as the North American Aviation Corporation.
During the next five or six years, Wilson was given increasing responsibilities in labor relations with the parts and accessory divisions. He was made executive vice president of General Motors on May 1, 1939.
On June 18, 1940, he was appointed acting president of General Motors, this action following the granting of a leave of absence to William S. Knudsen, president of General Motors, in order that he might accept the invitation of President Roosevelt to direct industrial production in the national defense program. Wilson was elected president of the corporation January 6, 1941, after Knudsen and resigned all his connection with General Motors. In the four wartime years Wilson led the production forces of General Motors in turning out a huge volume of the nation's armament, with a dollar value of about twelve billions and a variety and number of items that was amazing. General Motors made almost one-fourth of all the tanks, armored cars and airplane engines built in the United States; almost half of all the machine guns and carbines; two-thirds of all trucks of 2-1/2 tons or over the three-fourths of all Diesel engine horsepower used by the Navy.
Adaptability was a prime factor in the General Motors war job, and C.E. Wilson and others adjusted their planning repeatedly. One example was the conversion of a number of east coast automobile plants into the Eastern Aircraft Division, a wartime creation, General Motors never having built planes before. It manufactured many thousand carrier aircraft for the Navy. In the wartime period, Wilson was an information source for many military and industrial bodies of the government, including congressional committees on use of resources and manpower. The corporation's effort continued at full capacity until after the defect of Germany, which was followed by some cancellations of armament contracts. At war's end in Europe, General Motors was producing at a rate of about $10 million worth of material a day. As chief executive officer of General Motors, Wilson took a continuing active interest in management-labor relations. He was largely responsible for the history-making five-year contract entered into in 1950 between General Motors and the United Automobile Workers-CIO.
Wilson resigned to become Secretary of Defense in the Cabinet of President Eisenhower on January 26, 1953. He served in that capacity until October 2, 1957.
Wilson left a position at General Motors which paid him $600,000 annually plus millions of dollars in stock options to take a job that paid $22,500 annually. It was thought that if he maintained his share of GM stock there would be a conflict of interest. This was a major point of conflict during his testimony before Congress during the selection process. It was during these hearings in the Senate that Wilson uttered the famous, and often misquoted, statement "I cannot conceive of [a conflict of interest] because for years I thought that what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa." Ultimately, he was gave up his 39,477 shares of GM stock.
After his tenure in office, he was reelected a GM director following his resignation as Secretary of Defense. Mr. Wilson was actively associated with General Motors and its subsidiaries for more than 33 years.
Mr. Wilson died September 26, 1961.