Carnegie's Tough Partner
Intense, humorless, and driven, Henry Clay Frick vigorously pursued two primary goals: money and empire. His stormy partnership with Carnegie would bring him both, but proved to be his worst mistake, scarring his reputation and costing him control of his own company.
During the 1870's, Frick built an industrial empire by manufacturing coke, an essential coal-based fuel for blast furnaces. In 1881, Carnegie joined forces with Frick to get the coke he wanted. Frick got the money he needed to expand. But he lost control of his own company. Carnegie quickly became majority stockholder.
If Frick had lost control of his books, he was determined to maintain control over his workers. In an era when labor forcefully asserted its interests, Frick earned a reputation as a hard-nosed businessman who never compromised with his workers. Even in a notoriously anti-labor industry, Frick's ruthless suppression of strikes stood out.
For Carnegie, who had carefully cultivated a reputation as a pro-labor industrialist, his partnership with Frick invited conflict, and there was frequently tension. But Carnegie recognized an able executive. In 1889 he tapped Frick to be chairman of Carnegie Steel. "Take supreme care of that head of yours. It is wanted," Carnegie wrote to him. "Again, expressing my thankfulness that I have found THE MAN."
Carnegie happily let Frick play the heavy. Unlike his partner, Frick had unambiguous views of capital's relationship to labor. When Frick assumed contract negotiations at the Homestead mill in 1892, he was determined to rid the company of its most troublesome union. The bloody battle that followed would brand Frick as cold-hearted, bloodthirsty and mercenary. Although Carnegie had supported -- and at times directed -- Frick's conduct during the lockout, he tried to foist the blame onto Frick. Their relationship grew bitter.
Carnegie privately sniped at his partner, which infuriated Frick. "Why was he not manly enough to say to my face what he said behind my back?" Frick demanded at a board meeting. "I have stood a great many insults from Mr. Carnegie in the past, but I will submit to no further insults in the future."
On December 5, 1899, Frick resigned from the board of Carnegie Steel. Carnegie remained unsatisfied. He wanted Frick's stock, and threatened to force Frick to sell it at far below market value. Frick sued. After a brief court fight, the men settled. Frick walked away with pockets bulging.
Though the two men never met again, Frick seemed to enjoy taunting Carnegie from the sidelines. Five months after he was kicked out of the company, Frick wired Carnegie, detailing a variety of the company's "ruinous" business decisions: "You are being outgeneralled all along the line, and your management of the Company has already become the subject of jest. Frick."
Next: Strike at Homestead Mill