We Did It Our Way
by Brian Ferguson
After I joined the company to do something, I really enjoy doing it. I’ll spend 24-7 doing it. But once I’ve established whatever it is I’m supposed to be doing, it’s now more maintenance – I don’t like maintenance. Once I’ve built it, let someone else run it. I’m not concerned. Each new company I’ve gone with has been a great challenge. That’s why I went there. And for some reason I’ve managed to overcome the challenge and make it do it’s thing, and that’s what I enjoy doing.
Chapter One: Early Years in Scotland
I was born in 1935 in Edinburgh, Scotland, and that was just at the beginning of World War II. An interesting thing happened to me and my family at that time. My father was a professional soldier, and he was an officer and of course was taken away – I think he was in Burma for a long time. But anyway, at one time, when I was about five or six, the war was still going on of course. The British Army thought that where I lived in Edinburgh was a target for the German V2 bombers. So what they decided was that any officer who had their home there, that they would take their first born son, their oldest son, and move them to a safe place. They figured that Edinburgh wasn’t very safe – it was on what’s called the Firth of Forth, which is an entrance into Scotland - a lot of shipping there.
So anyway I was taken out of my house for about two years -and I didn’t know my mother and of course I didn’t know my father. I didn’t see my father for – gosh, I don’t know, I was 14 before I saw him. My mother's dad (my Grandad) - during WWII, he was in the Highland Light Infantry (HLI) as a person having responsibility for the horses used during the war. Because of love for horses on being discharged he immediately started some businesses using horses. He had a dairy that delivered milk to grocery stores etc. and then started the first fleet of "Hansom" cabs in Edinburgh. These were 2 wheeled carriages drawn by horse that had room for two passengers and was used like our taxi cabs. My family lived in his house which had been built in the 1800s. My father bought the house from him after coming home from the army. During these years he was my mentor and really helped me on my getting adjusted to life as it was.
Next thing might be of interest – I was enrolled what’s called the Royal High School of Edinburgh, which was a boys school. So the only other students I knew were boys. Whenever we got out we were kind of let loose pretty strongly. Anyway, so I graduated from high school and the reason I’m doing this a little bit at the beginning is – it – I think it’s of some interest. My father had wanted me to go to Sandhurst which is the equivalent of West Point, but that wasn’t for me, so I said no.
What I did – I joined a company that had an interesting new project. One was an apprenticeship as a machinist, and also do to university to get your degree. So instead of taking four years for each of those, y’know, four years for an apprenticeship and four years for an engineering degree, it took me five to get both of them. So at the end of five years I was a journeyman machinist as well as a mechanical engineer. I spent about a year or so with that company after I had graduated, but uh – I got a hankering to leave and go see other places.
Chapter 2: Seeking Fortune in Canada
I’d been going around with a girl for a couple of years, so we got married in 1958, and a week after we were married I left her in Edinburgh and I went to Canada to seek my fortune. When I arrived in Toronto I stayed at the YMCA for a couple of days, and there’s a street there called Yonge Street that goes north and south. It took me two days to get courage to cross that road. The cars were so fast, the cars were so big. I had never seen anything like that in my life. And this was just – this was like Back to the Future.
Unfortunately, the day after I arrived, approximately, a company which manufactured aircraft shut down, and it put about 200-300 engineers out on the market. This was in Toronto. So I didn’t have much of a chance to get a job real easy, especially in my field.
I kept looking around and I was down to $100 that I had in cash. I was taking a hamburger and an orange juice every day – that was my food. I got quite concerned about this, so I went – I said, “Okay, I know what I’m going to do.” So I went an Army recruiter and talked to the guy there. He was a Scotsman as a matter of fact.
I said, “I really want to join the paratroopers,” ‘cuz I thought that was romantic, y’know, and different. “I’d like to become a paratrooper.”
And so we sat and chatted for about a half hour and at the end of the half hour or so, he said, in his real Scottish accent, “Laddie, ye don’t want to join the service. You want a job.”
And I said, “Yeah, well, yeah kinda, that’s true.”
And he said, “Okay,” he said. “If you come back in two weeks, I’ll sign you on.”
Ten days later I got a call from General Electric, Canada. They wanted an engineer and they thought I could do the job. So anyway I joined GE and I never did see that recruiter again.
After about three months at GE, I saved up enough money and brought my wife over, and my wife is still with me, of course, after 61 years. If I could give this book to only one person it would be my wife, because she’s the one who’s been with me all these years. She’s the one – I would say to her, you’ve been with me all these years. You’ve helped me all these years. You’ve helped me make decisions, and whatever decision we’ve decided on, we’ve gone together. And I think – one thing that you should have is a story outside of what you know already. My wife is my best friend. She is my cook and chef. She’s my cleaning lady. She’s my travel agent. She’s my lover. She’s my friend.
Chapter 3: Getting Started in the States
[We] spent a couple of years in Canada and – although the people were real nice, they were all from the UK. They were from Scotland and England, so there wasn’t much change. There were too many immigrants like us and it wasn’t really the new country that we thought it would be. So I saw an advertisement for a job in the States in Erie, Pennsylvania. And I applied for the job and they said “Yeah, you’re good. We could take you on, but you gotta get your papers.”
So they got hold of a senator and did this that and the next thing. After a couple-three months or so, I was approved for a work visa and moved to the States. What was kind of interesting, however, was that three months after I moved into Erie, I got a draft notice from the US Army.
I thought “What the heck?” So anyhow I talked to them and they didn’t realize that my wife was pregnant. Well this is going to interfere with my child being born, I says.
“Oh, okay, at the moment, you’re deferred.” And I never did hear from them again, so I missed that one.
That was fine, and we spent – both our children were born in Erie, our son and our daughter. I moved from Erie to a little town called Titusville, Pennsylvania. There was a machine shop that produced large parts and I was in there as their manufacturing/engineering manager. And I had an opportunity at that time to meet Dr. Von Braun. Dr. Von Braun was a German-American astrophysicist, and he was perfecting the Saturn V rocket. We bid on a job for him and he came to visit us and I worked with him for quite a while in producing some test stations for the Saturn V rockets, so that was kind of interesting. I did enjoy the time I worked with Von Braun. He was hard to understand. He had a very strong German accent but really a smart guy. So I enjoyed working with him and producing the product that we did produce for testing the rocket and everything worked out fine, it seems. That was very enjoyable.
I did a lot of moving around; I spent maybe two to three years at each company. Hopefully was moving up the cherry tree. I moved to a company in Massachusetts as plant manager and had to get secret clearance there because we were producing weapons that were being used in the Viet Nam war.
That was kind of interesting. We had a shoulder-fire rocket launcher, that we manufactured. It went into a big cage where it was inspected by the DOD – the government, loaded in a truck. The truck was driven down to Red River, near the northern part of Texas, Texarkana. It was loaded up with 80 mm shells and sent to Viet Nam and it was in Viet Nam about three days after we had produced it. It was continually, fill this truck, send the truck down, fill this truck, send the truck down. That was a lot of work there. Anyway you could - not that I ever was in the service, but you could see the need for this continual supply of weapons.
Then I moved from there and moved to a company in North Carolina. They had a plant in South Carolina and I was sent down there as director of manufacturing for a while. It was a chainsaw manufacturer. While I was there I was hunted by a headhunter who got me another job in Arkansas. This was plant manager for a start up of a chain saw manufacturer, because I’d had experience in chain saws and they were starting up a new plant, so I helped them start that up.
This was at the time that Bill Clinton was governor of Arkansas. So I had the chance to have a couple-three meetings with him. That was interesting. The reason for that was there was an Arkansas development fund that was being used to help bring new business into Arkansas. Being the new plant manager of this plant I was – it was my responsibility to see how much money I could get. So that was a real neat thing.
Chapter 8: Reflections
Well, let me preface it by saying this: I get bored. Just some places I got more bored quicker. After I joined the company to do something, I really enjoy doing it. I’ll spend 24-7 doing it. But once I’ve established whatever it is I’m supposed to be doing, it’s now more maintenance – I don’t like maintenance. Once I’ve built it, let someone else run it. I’m not concerned.
Each new company I’ve gone with has been a great challenge. That’s why I went there. And for some reason I’ve managed to overcome the challenge and make it do it’s thing, and that’s what I enjoy doing.
I've had the opportunity to work with and against trade unions. And so a couple of companies I’ve been with, I’ve been the spokesperson for the company just because I was in charge of operations or manufacturing, so that’s where the unions were, and those instances were extremely enjoyable. Frustrating but enjoyable. Some of them turned out real well as far as I’m concerned for the company, some not as well. I'm not sure that it was a highlight or not but those were a couple of interesting – really interesting things. Had really nothing to do with the job at hand, the product or whatever it was, it was more the relationship with labor.
And I think I had some kind of an affinity with those folks because I had spent five years as an apprentice in the machine shop and working with union members. I was an indentured apprentice, and so when they went on strike, we couldn’t go on strike. We just had to do the work that they normally did at that time, so I kind of got an understanding or a better feeling I guess for the manual labor type person, and that’s maybe why I enjoyed negotiating with them. Taking advantage of them maybe sometimes, but anyway.
But now that I’m going back, in retrospect – I think, I think there are a couple of the companies – I've often thought, wow, what would have happened if I had stayed? How would I have enjoyed it and what would I being doing now if I had stayed there?
For example, when we moved down to Arkansas and that’s where I met Governor Clinton – that episode. I really enjoyed the town that we were in, Nashville, Arkansas. It was only five thousand people. My son – our two children really enjoyed it. They went to high school there, and it was one of those communities if somebody sneezed the other one said, “Do you have a cold?” That sort of place, y’know. I enjoyed that. And I’m wondering what would have happened had we stayed there.
Now, what I did afterwards I really enjoyed, and it’s one of those things like, “I wouldn’t change it, but would I?” You can’t bet on something you don’t know; you can only bet on what you’ve done and said. I’m not sure it’d be any better or worse than where I am now, but it would’ve been different.
We Did It Our Way: Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Early Years in Scotland
In which WWII disrupts Brian’s childhood, and Brian decides against a military life in favor of becoming a machinist and a mechanical engineer.
Chapter 2: Seeking Fortune in Canada
In which Brian gets married and moves to Canada in hopes of making his fortune – and almost ends up in the military. A lucky break lands him a job and allows him to bring his wife to North America to start a long shared career.
Chapter 3: Getting Started in the States
In which Brian and his wife decide Canada is too much like Scotland and seek opportunities in the United States. Brian once again nearly ends up in the military, but instead builds a career as a manufacturing expert, helping to optimize a number of plants.
Chapter 4: Managing Start Ups – From Arkansas to Japan
In which an opportunity to work in a start up chain saw factory in Arkansas allows Brian to develop expertise in running start up manufacturing companies. This expertise leads him to work for various international and American companies.
Chapter 5: Labor Relations
In which Brian describes the experience of working for a company in which the union laborers bought out ownership and began running their own shop. He notes the particular complications that arise as non-owning union members are hired on and have to negotiate contracts.
Chapter 6: Retirement Part I – Teaching
In which Brian retires from manufacturing work and enjoys about a year of golf before his wife ask, “Well, what are you doing with all this experience that you got?” Brian begins work for a community college as a project manager for a manufacturing grant for 18 months, then goes on to an administrative and teaching role at the college for 10 more years.
Chapter 7: Retirement Part II
In which Brian retires in 2008 for the second time and spends his days enjoying time with his wife, golfing, and walking his dog.
Chapter 8: Reflections
In which Brian shares some thoughts on what aspects of his work he enjoyed most and what he might have done differently.
About Brian Ferguson
Brian Ferguson found writing about the author tough because he had to think about himself “in the third person, almost, and that’s kind of tough, because I’ve been around myself for so long.” The following pages show only a little part of the real depth and trueness of this author. He has lived a varied life – one full of decisions. He has an enjoyable family life with wife and children. He had the opportunity to work with, for, and in places with females and males, and he respects both male and female. His background is such that really he could write three books and they’d be all different. He says his life has been “in some ways is just a standard – reasonably success story. Very successful to the author, maybe not to others who look at it.”
 Werhner von Braun