Tuesday, January 31, 2012

National Mentoring Month Flashback: Meet Al Latham

Credit: Bishop-Wisecarver archives
We recently blogged about how January is National Mentoring Month — a time set aside to recognize role models. American Politician John Crosby once said, “Mentoring is a brain to pick, an ear to listen, and a push in the right direction.”

With that in mind, we moseyed on over to Bud Wisecarver's office last Friday to pick his brain. We asked, "Who was your most memorable mentor?" Without missing a beat, the 84-year-old inventor named the late Al Latham, an engineer involved in the construction of the 
Bay Bridge in 1936 and the Golden Gate Bridge a year later.

Credit: Bay Bridge Public Information Office
"I learned a lot from him about business and life in general," said Bud. "He was a great guy."
Al was a force to be reckoned with, he told us. Bud was in his mid-20s when he met Al, an independent distributor for a window blinds manufacturer in the San Francisco Bay Area.

"He was sharp," Bud reminisced. "The only Levolor distributor who wasn't part of the company ... that's how much they trusted him, that they'd let a non-employee represent them."

The two met in Oakland, where Bud was building a speed boat for a friend who worked with Al. Bud was in the middle of the project when Al walked up to him and boldly said, "That's not how you build a boat!"

"I told him yes, actually, it is," Bud said. "I know what I'm doing."

Bud's confidence and Al's straightforward attitude clicked. The two immediately hit it off. Soon after, the two were working together to overhaul  the blinds manufacturing facility. Al worked on designs and Bud brought the plans to life.

"I wanted to get married and have a steady job instead of my small little business," Bud said. 
So when offered the challenge, he accepted. The redesign wound up improving the plant's efficiency so much so that production tripled. Instead of running six hours a day, four days a week,  the Levelor plant turned into an all-day operation. Bud, by upping productivity and reliability, automated himself out of a job. But he came away from it with a lifelong friend in Al.

Years later, Al was the one responsible for gifting Bud his first machine shop — an old, tool-stocked warehouse in West Oakland. When Bud later incorporated his truck accessory manufacturing business named 
W.R. Wisecarver Company, he gave Al a share, even though he didn't ask for it.

"It was the least I could do," Bud said. "He helped me get started in life."

[ Click here to learn more about National Mentoring Month ] Tell us a story about one of your most memorable mentors. Or, maybe you have a story to share from the mentor's perspective! Check out part 4 of our "Life of an Inventor" webisode series where Bud talks about his first time meeting Al and the projects they worked on together.