The Wilmeth Active Learning Center honors two brothers who earned their engineering degrees at Purdue University, the late Thomas S. Wilmeth, and the late Harvey D. Wilmeth. Their brief biographies are presented for your consideration as you explore the legacy and impact of their lives.
Thomas Sharpe Wilmeth
Thomas Sharpe Wilmeth’s philosophy of life was “to develop the ability to train and teach oneself to learn.”Tom described himself as “someone who always wanted something to do.”
Thomas Sharpe (Tom) Wilmeth was born October 2, 1913. During WWI, his father served in Europe in the US Army. During this time, Tom’s maternal grandmother lived with his mother. Both women were math teachers and saw after his education before he started school. As a result, Tom skipped three grades and graduated from Broad Ripple High School in Indianapolis at fifteen.
Tom was a life-long entrepreneur. His first business was selling hot-roasted peanuts at age 10. At twelve, he was picking and selling strawberries. At fifteen, he opened a business repairing radios and at sixteen, he became an Eagle Scout. While he was a Boy Scout, he was the champion fire starter, 3 seconds by flint and 8 seconds by friction.
Tom enrolled at Purdue University when he was sixteen. As a senior, he was the business manager of the Purdue yearbook, the Debris, earning $1,100 ($20,000 today) for his share of the profits. While at Purdue, he was a member of Alpha Chi Rho, Tau Beta Pi, and Eta Kappa Nu. He graduated magna cum laude (second in his class) at age 21 with a degree in electrical engineering.
In 1949, Tom and his younger brother Harvey started Scot Industries, Inc. Harvey had the rent money from his pre WWII investment earnings. Tom ran the company. The first years were difficult; insolvency was often near. Tom went through ten different businesses before finding one that worked. A less determined person would have given up.
In the late 1950’s, Scot Industries entered the steel tube honing business. Tom’s engineering and design skills allowed the company to produce better and less expensive products. Customers liked a company with new ideas, high quality products, and competitive costs. Customers liked Tom because he listened to their problems and invented solutions.
Retaining good people was a major problem for Scot Industries in the early days. As a result, Tom introduced the Scot Industries profit sharing trust. The objective was to share the success of the company with the employees and to give them incentive to stay. His first contribution was $5,000. Tom told the employees that someday they could have $100,000 in the profit sharing trust. It was hard for people to believe.
The company has continued to contribute each year regardless of profitability. For each of the last 45 years, the company has contributed 15% of each employee’s gross wages into the trust. Harvey Wilmeth managed and decided all investments. Harvey achieved a 10% compounded annual rate of return for the trust participants until he passed away in 2007. Harvey never received a single dime for his investment work. He wanted only to benefit the Scot Industries employees. So far, the Scot Industries profit sharing trust has paid out more than $70,000,000 to plan participants. As of June 30, 2016, the value of the trust was more than $100,000,000.
Over the last forty-five years, Tom and his son,
Steven, built the company into an international business with thirteen plants
and a worldwide reputation for quality and technology leadership in the
specialty tubing and precision steel bar business.
All company decisions are made with a long-term view, unusual in today’s world of quarter-to-quarter earnings projection. Scot Industries has reinvested more than 95% of the company’s total earnings in new tools, new machines, new plants and what seems to be an ever-increasing inventory. For the past thirty five years, Scot Industries has had no debt, very unusual in today’s world. As a result of Tom and Harvey Wilmeth’s long term planning, the company remains owned and operated by the Wilmeth family.
Tom was a long-time philanthropist, contributing to Purdue Libraries, the Mayo Clinic, and the Boy Scouts, to name a few. He attributed his own success to the quality education he received from his mother and grandmother, the public schools of Indianapolis, and Purdue University. He was awarded an honorary doctorate in Engineering Information Literacy by Purdue in May of 2013. The intent of Tom Wilmeth’s philanthropy was to offer similar opportunities to others.
Even at age 100, Tom served as chairman of Scot Industries. He went to work every day, excited about new challenges, new ideas, new designs, and new opportunities. He never stopped thinking, and he never retired. Tom passed away January 5, 2015 at age 101.
Tom’s philosophy of life was “the real issue is to develop the ability to train and teach oneself to learn. This way, one can teach oneself and continue learning and growing throughout life.”
Harvey D. Wilmeth
Long before there was Internet, cell phones, digital recording technology and even television, a primitive short film was made of two young scouts in Indiana exploring how to make fire. In this rare footage the boys proudly demonstrated how a spark could be transformed into a blaze by applied effort—in this case the windmill action of arms. This short, early illustration proved to be a metaphor of both their entrepreneurial future, and of their education at Purdue University. Those young brothers are the esteemed Purdue alums Tom and Harvey Wilmeth, for whom this learning facility is dedicated. These remarkable Purdue grads and brothers followed different but intertwined paths to success.
Harvey Wilmeth graduated from Purdue University in 1940 with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Chemical Engineering. During his time at Purdue, Harvey polished a natural academic instinct and formed the ability to think in an organized and creative way. It is at Purdue that he began to understand that the pursuit of knowledge is not only an end in and of itself but also, if applied diligently, can have practical and societal benefits. The Great Depression of the 1930s stimulated Harvey’s interest in economic theory even during Harvey’s college years, and ultimately led to a lifelong study of economic relationships. His goal was to prevent another Great Depression.
This educational spark led Harvey to pursue graduate level coursework in economics at NYU and Indiana University. He also received technical training at Harvard University and MIT through the US Navy officer program during World War II. Harvey served his country from 1943-1946 aboard the USS Lexington aircraft carrier in the Pacific. As an officer, Lieutenant Senior Grade, he was in charge of the radar detection system and did not set foot on land for 2 years.
After his military discharge, Harvey married Patricia Ann Smith in 1947, and they settled in Milwaukee, WI where Tom was located. He joined Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company in 1947, where he advanced from research manager in the Mortgage Loan Department to Controller of the company. He devoted the first phase of his working life to reducing company costs while at the same time developing low cost affordable life insurance products. He was very successful at both. In books written about Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance, Harvey is described as “having a talent for statistics and a taste for ideas that made him one of the most original thinkers in the company’s history.”
In 1977 he changed his job to Research Economist and was promoted to Senior Vice President. His objective from then on was to develop more comprehensive economic theories and government policies that would bring greater economic success for America and improve the average family’s life. Harvey- always impacted by the Great Depression- was determined to make lasting differences for future generations using economics as his vehicle. He always thought about long-term consequences and never made decisions for short-term benefits.
Harvey developed economic theory principles that were unique and exciting on national and even international stages. He testified on the subject at educational seminars and congressional hearings, including the Joint Economic Committee of Congress. His specialty was business cycle economics and the impact of long wave economic imbalances (40-60 year Kondratiev cycles). He has been published, and has been cited by others, on matters concerning national policy and the effects of government policies on inflation and on individual real savings. Harvey believed there was room for government to improve our economy and therefore people’s lives. His many listeners wore “I believe in Harvey” buttons.
After his mandatory retirement from Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance at age 65 in 1983, Harvey became a senior economist at the University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee’s Center for Economic Education. This work culminated in his establishment of the Center for Advanced Macroeconomic Policy in 1990. Harvey worked with and inspired numerous faculty members and graduate students who were influenced by, and built upon, his original thinking and theories. His goal was to improve public policy decisions. In 2005 Harvey was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee for his life-long study in the field of economics and for his creative academic contributions.
Now back to the two Wilmeth brothers who turned a spark into a flame. Back in the late 40’s they had a drawing board idea for a family business. Tom was the creative engineering genius and Harvey was the business planner who together founded Scot Industries in 1951. As the family story goes, the seed money for Scot came from Harvey’s invested poker winnings during his stint on the USS Lexington. With their mutual business commitment and complimentary talents, Harvey and Tom Wilmeth created the company that has grown, with the later guidance of Tom’s son Steve, into a multinational manufacturing company employing more than 800 people. Scot Industries today produces some the finest precision honed and chrome plated steel tubing products in the world.
Harvey’s financial and business oversight skills, along with management of the company profit sharing plan, helped build Scot Industries into the company it is today. Harvey managed and invested the employee profit sharing trust for the first 40 years of its existence. His goal was the financial success and security for the employees of Scot Industries. The profit sharing trust is currently worth more than $100 million, even with $60 million having been paid to employees.
Harvey was a renaissance man who believed equally in academic study and sound business practices in private enterprise. He promoted his economic theories with relish and kept up on the stock market watching the daily ticker tape during the afternoon business report at market close. When asked about his successes he would offer his advice with a secret smile- “buy low and sell high.”
Harvey and his brother Tom are prime examples of how the spark for learning, especially when it stems from the high quality education of Purdue University, can with effort be transformed into the flame of significant accomplishment. Their enduring lesson is of the value of knowledge and how the process of building knowledge can lead to success in so many fields of endeavor. This facility will be the tinderbox of academic accomplishment for generations of Purdue University students to come.