The man who nimbly scales the steps of this renovated caboose cabin cannot be 95. As he drives us around Scott’s Prairie—70 private acres of land in Hanna City he gifted to the Children’s Home—he defies age with a detailed recall of decades-old memories. Born in 1920, Bob Gilmore grew up in Peoria during the Great Depression. He graduated from high school in 1938, landed an apprenticeship at Caterpillar, and worked in the shop before enlisting and serving 30 missions as a B-17 Air Force navigator in Europe. Returning to Caterpillar in 1946, he quickly ascended the management ranks.
In 1963, Gilmore was asked to open a new plant in Grenoble, France, and successfully grew the facility over five years, the project a catalyst for Cat’s future international endeavors. He returned to Peoria with his wife, son and daughter in 1968 and became vice president for the 10 plants in the company’s U.S. operations. Gilmore became president in 1977, amidst a period of record sales and profits. But in 1982, the bottom fell out of the construction equipment market, and the company was forced to lay off 14,000 workers and close four plants. By the end of 1983, layoffs totaled 35,000 and nine plants closed. Approaching retirement age, Gilmore refused to leave until the company was back in the black—a huge accomplishment of which he is most proud in his long career. Honored to have spent a lifetime with Caterpillar, Gilmore defines himself as “yellow-blooded”—the evidence of his love for the company under his skin.
In addition to his hard-working spirit, his legacy will live on in the community he has served far into his retirement, through the Society of Manufacturing Engineers, Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce, Masons – Temple Lodge, Peoria Consistory, Mohammed Shrine, Country Club of Peoria, Creve Coeur Council of Boy Scouts of America, Economic Development Council and the Rice Pond Duck Club, among others. In May, he invited iBi to Scott’s Prairie to chat in the caboose car he spent three years renovating with his late son, Scott.
Tell us about this beautiful property!
I bought it in 1980, and it was a wasteland… I sought it out with the idea of just using it for hunting… rabbits, [ducks], squirrels and quail… The rest of the property was rental property, which was pretty well run down, and the longer I had it, the more I thought there were other things I could do. That’s all I wanted for it really, [but] old-growth timber is pretty hard to come by these days… Just ten years ago, I gave it to [Children’s Home].
What was it like growing up in Peoria?
I was born and raised in Peoria, and these were pretty tough days. I was born in 1920… so the primary growth years for me were in the depression years. [They] were pretty tough years economically, so there was no chance of me going to college. As a matter of fact, I worked in a dairy every summer all through high school… I thought I had a career doing that, but the dairy merged about a month after I got of high school, and I lost my job (laughs). So I walked the streets for six months, and finally got a job at Caterpillar making 32 cents an hour.
And what were you doing for them?
I was a beginning apprentice. I spent four years as an apprentice, at which point I got a diploma as an A1 machinist and was raised to 85 cents an hour.
So, where did you go from there?
Well, I graduated from the apprentice course… Caterpillar had just gotten a huge defense contract for transmissions for tanks… My first job when I got out as an apprentice was hand-building the first two or three hundred, single-mesh clutches… I was out in the shop for a year or so. But this was now 1942 or ‘43, and all of my friends were gone [to war], and I was pretty healthy at 22 years old. I had gotten multiple deferments because of my work on this military project, and I really got tired of getting deferred—it was embarrassing… [My boss] said I was really more valuable to the company and this special project. So I quit… Patriotism was a major element for people at that point in time. You just didn’t feel [good] if you weren’t along with your companions… and I was in the shop with a lot of older guys who had children, but their kids were in the Army or in the service somewhere. I really can’t say whether it was patriotism or peer pressure or all of those things, really, but I quit, which then caused the company to automatically give me military leave…
I went off to Fort Sheridan to join the infantry. I was standing in one of the many lines [and] a sergeant came by and said anybody who would like to go to the Air Force rather than stand in line, go to that tent over there, which I did. I passed that test, and that’s how I got in the Air Force.
Tell us about your missions in the Air Force.
I got there just in time for the Battle of the Bulge… It was the biggest battle of the war other than D-Day. I flew my first mission, I think, on January 2nd or 3rd of 1945… We were shot out by Flak [German anti-aircraft and anti-tank artillery guns] on our first mission, which knocked us out of formation. As a navigator, I had to find a way home because instead of 30 ships, we were by ourselves, flying on three engines. We made it, and flew again the next day… [On] our third mission, we flew Berlin, and Berlin was very, very heavily equipped with anti-aircraft guns... On that mission, we just got clobbered—we lost a lot of planes… The navigator’s job was to keep track of what planes got shot down, identify them by the number on their tail, how many people got out…
The point I’m attempting to make was that every one of us was too busy to be scared. This was pretty early in our experience. We knew what we had to do. We knew we had to go to a briefing after the mission was over and accurately describe who got shot down and who didn’t… Well, about our 12th or 13th mission… we went back to Berlin again, but this time, the fear had set in. It’s amazing how we were in terrible trouble that first mission and were too busy to be scared, but our knees were knocking [when] we found out we were going back there again… When you do that 30 times, it’s a pretty demanding chore.
I imagine the transition back to the manufacturing world after the war must have been difficult.
I came back to Caterpillar on third shift in the machine shop—and that’s pretty miserable to come [back] to… I was all ready to quit, and I thought I would go through [college on] the GI Bill… With the defense background I had and with the military schooling, I figured I could get a degree in a couple of years. Well… my boss said [to] wait it out a couple of weeks and maybe something better will come up, and it did. So, I went out of the shop and into an office, and in four years, I had gone through three levels of management, from supervisor to superintendent to manager. I went from a lifetime of being a shop guy to being in the office and getting rapid promotions. But my grammar was terrible, I chewed tobacco… I was a shop guy… I was delighted to be able to do it and the job was great, but it was an entirely different environment than that in which I was brought up.
That’s very rapid progression!
It was very rapid. And it wasn’t because I was brilliant, but the fact that the company was expanding like crazy. We were a two-plant company: one little small plant in San Leandro, California, and in Peoria… Building KK was not even built. All the big factory buildings were built in that 10-year period from the mid-‘40s to the early part of the ‘50s. So, I just advanced as the company grew.
After about four years, I went back in the shop, which I was very glad to do. I enjoyed being in the factory, and I was an assistant manager of the engine plant. And so, by the time I was 32 or 33… I ran the engine plant in KK, with over 2,500 employees on three shifts… I really enjoyed that. I did that for seven years. In essence, I spent 25 years in the shop in one fashion or another, before I had the opportunity to go to the south of France. When I was manufacturing manager in East Peoria, there were 11,000 people in manufacturing in East Peoria. Now, there are probably 2,000. It was that big.
Tell us about launching the plant in Grenoble.
It was just marvelous. Getting there was very hard work. At that period of time [early ‘60s], they raised a 15-percent tariff on construction machinery [in Europe]… so our [only way] to compete in the common market was to compete from a plant there. We had nothing to start with. The company sent two guys to Europe for a year to try to find some kind of a starting point; they didn’t want to start from scratch—that’s very difficult to do. So, they found a little plant in Grenoble with about 300 people and maybe 125,000 square feet… Because I was a manufacturing guy, I was given the opportunity to go over and start the plant, so I did that.
We not only fulfilled that market opportunity in the common market, we found out, once we got going, that we had the product and the time and the prices that we could compete in the Middle East and Africa. So in its five years, we went from what I just described to 2,500 people in 1.25 million square feet. That’s dramatic change, and… as I look back on my career, that’s one of the best jobs I ever had because when you’re in that circumstance, you make all your own decisions… It’s a great sense of responsibility, so I thoroughly enjoyed that.
What was it like moving the family to France?
Our kids then were 10 and 12 years old, and we thought we could take them to France and set them back a year. The French would not accept that… so we had to go to Geneva, which is 100 miles away, and find a boarding school… So, they’d come home by train on weekend. The longer they were there, the less often they’d come home (laughs)… My daughter met a young man at boarding school—an American… They both [went to] colleges on the east coast… and now have been married 40 years (smiles).
[But] we were working 12 hours a day at least, trying to get things off the ground, then trying to take a French lesson at night... Unless you have some innate ability, it’s just impossible to pick up the language. I could get by socially, but I couldn’t get into tough union negotiations… I was able to make some minor speeches in French at employee meetings. Our safety record in that plant as we began to grow was unbelievably bad… Welders would be welding in open-toed shoes… safety glasses were unknown [and] they had a variety of odd shifts—from seven to noon, then a two-hour lunch period, then from two until seven, and that’s a long, long day. And most of them would bring a liter of wine with them in the morning, and they’d bring a liter of wine in the afternoon.
So did you have to implement new standards?
We did a lot more than that. After we built these new buildings and began hiring new people, we decided we just couldn’t tolerate that kind of shift arrangement. We certainly couldn’t tolerate that kind of booze, so we decided… we’d build a cafeteria as a part of the plant and we would serve [small] bottles of wine, but they would be limited to one, and they could not take them back out into the shop. And we said that we would have a half-hour lunch, not two hours. This was a cultural change—a significant cultural change.
I’m guessing they didn’t like that.
Nobody did. The union didn’t like it. The mayor didn’t like it. They said we were destroying the home life of French people, so we sorted that out with strikes… for the better part of a year. They have a unique way of striking in France…They just walk off the job and out of the premises and sit down. So, we’d be in the middle of one of these things and I’d look out my window and they were sitting on the hood of my car and the fenders, and just sat out for an hour or two. That just destroys the opportunity to have an assembly line.
At one point in time, [there] was a national uprising in France—it was about to go Communist, and [French President Charles] de Gaulle was very unpopular at the time. They went on one of their many routine strikes, but this, they made into a day, and [then] a week. They took over the whole plant… All the management was barred from getting in. There were no telephones, no mail service [and]… there were huge demonstrations in the streets. This went on for the better part of two or three weeks. Well, some of our French guys decided that this couldn’t happen to their jobs and their company, so they engineered a plan to break through the gates… The plant was surrounded by a chain-link fence, but there were some weak places in it, so… we broke down the gates with fire hoses and beat our way back in (laughs). We took the plant back over… [Eventually] de Gaulle came back, and television immediately was restored. He said this country will go back to work in the next 48 hours. Twenty-four hours later, we had six or seven army trucks right at our front door, and we just walked in and went back to work.
How did your years of experience in the shop inform your role when you became CEO in 1977? Did it help prepare you for the job?
Absolutely—no doubt about it, [but] that’s kind of a hard question to answer because everything you’ve done throughout your life you use when you’re CEO. That’s the big advantage I had—I’m the last “manufacturing guy” that will ever run the company, and I’m the last non-college graduate that will ever run the company.
I became president and we had a couple of “banner” years: record profits, record sales. In 1981, we had an excellent year, but at that point in time, interest rates were 18 percent, and you can imagine, buying a million-dollar tractor borrowing money… it was just impossible. So… we had a good year in 1980-81, [but] in ’82, we had the first company loss in its history. We lost $50 million… By the end of that year, we had closed nine plants within two years and lost a million dollars a day for three years. That’s what began the change in the company… Two chairmen later, Don Fites… [would] decide [to] completely reorganize the company. Instead of having one president, as I was, there’d be six, and each one of those six would have complete responsibility for his part of the company. That was a dramatic change, and it turned out to be very successful.
So is that about the time you retired?
I was scheduled to retire when I was 65, and when I did, we were back in the black, so I could retire comfortably… To have to—after all those good years—retire when the company was losing money, was not a prospect that I looked forward to. I couldn’t control the timing, but I was sure glad that I was running the company when I was, because I had so many years of background.
What are you most proud of having accomplished at Caterpillar?
I guess my proudest would be in the closing years, having to run a company that had not had a loss for 50 years. I didn’t think I was responsible for the bottom falling out; there were adequate reasons for what happened, but the fact that we stuck it out for those three years of losing a million dollars a day... We were a $10-billion company with 90,000 employees; now we’re a $60-billion company with 148,000 or so. A dramatic change.
How have you been staying busy in your retirement years?
When I retired from the company, I was on four corporate boards for another seven or eight years… so I sort of eased into retirement, if you will. By that time, I was 72 or 73 and still skiing, (laughs) which I loved to do. I did it as long as I could. [Earlier] I was on the Junior Chamber of Commerce, and… I got very active with Boy Scouts. [Eventually] I was on the board of the Chamber of Commerce as the vice president… [which] led to me getting onto the Economic Development Council, which… was another stepping stone. I wasn’t trying to create any records… these things just happened. If someone asks you to do something and you do it well, you get asked to do something else.
Why is this land here at Scott’s Prairie so important to you?
It means an awful lot… the caboose does. I come out here on Saturday when there are no kids around, and I have all kinds of things that I can think about. This is a great retreat. I don’t really need a retreat—I’m a very lucky guy to have been remarried at 85 and to have a good 10-year marriage, but my wife and I both had our own lives and we do our own thing. I come out here… and almost always walk around the lake and walk back over to the woods. That’s very meaningful to me. It’s been a highlight of my retirement.
It sounds like being active is one of your secrets to a long life?
Yes. And I guess I’m a little bit bothered by that as I get to 95. I’ve run out of energy to do all the things that I’d still like to do. But I guess I can’t complain. I’m pretty lucky. iBi