Their energies, commitment and unstinting filial loyalty have built one of the state’s major companies with a global reputation for outstanding quality and excellence.
“Do you want to sell and go sailing?”
It was a legitimate question. Bradford R. (Brad) and Russell A. (Ron) Boss were both passionate sailors, and their dad, A.T. Cross, CEO and principal owner W. Russell Boss, Jr., having built the business up to $12-million in annual sales in 1967, wanted to pack it in and move to Florida.
But his sons did not want to sell. Inspired by what their father and uncle had done in the 30 years since taking over the company, they were determined to build it to what they saw as its potential—a potential that by 1989 would see the company as a world renowned manufacturer and marketer of exquisite pens, pencils and related gift items with 1,100 employees and annual sales of just under $250 million.
That potential had been obscured by a very long but largely undistinguished company history. Records are conflicting, but the company really began as a successor to Richard Cross and Son in the 1870’s when Alonzo T. Cross started selling ordinary wooden pencils in a metal casings, giving them something of an upscale look. He also developed the first propel-repel mechanisms, enabling the users to wind out the lead, which he patented in 1880. By early in the 20th century he was producing ornately tooled gold filled pencil covers and he had even developed a pen that “dropped” ink, the predecessor to the fountain pen.
Walter R. Boss, Brad and Ron’s grandfather, had been on the road selling A.T. Cross products for some time when Alonzo Cross, having no heirs, decided to sell the company. Walter managed to buy it in 1919 and later brought in his eldest son Ellery, as president, first and, later on, Russell, as secretary and treasurer. Under this management team, the company did fairly well until the Depression nearly put them out of business. Russ had to leave for lack of work, and, after selling cars for a while, opened a gas station on Allens Avenue in Providence.
The automobile business appealed to Russ. At age 21 he had been a thrilled spectator at the 1929 Indianapolis 500, and, for many years thereafter, he would stay involved in racing both as a competitor and as a member of the AAA contest board and as a timer, scorer and starter in the New England area. But in 1937 Walter passed away, and he returned to A. T. Cross.
At that point they were existing by making mechanical pencil mechanisms for the Parker Pen Company, and Russ decided they had to develop their own product lines. Along with mechanical pencils, they began making fountain pens of their own design with the black top they are so well known for and with very popular life-time guarantees.
When World War II began, the company couldn’t get rubber to make the sacks necessary for the fountain pens. That stopped pen production, and they existed throughout the war making parts for fighter planes. But by 1946, Cross was back in the writing instrument business, adding small gold and silver pencils for women to their standard model with the now familiar black top.
At this point there were 50 employees and some salesmen in the road. “We were doing reasonably well in the late 40s,” says Brad. “Ellery was a very good engineer. Realizing they were getting hurt just making pencils, they made the first propel-repel ball point pen in 1953 and a matching pen and pencil set. Dad was handling the advertising and promotions. He had a very good presence about him.”
At this time, in 1960, the company, located on 1058 Broad Street in South Providence, was still quite small. Both Brad and Ron worked some summers with Ron focusing on Production, but it was not at all certain there would be room for them when they finished their educations—Brad at URI and Ron at Dartmouth. “We were always exposed to it,” Bard recalls, “but it was open to question as to whether we’d get involved.”
But when Brad finished college and his obligatory military service as a Naval officer—which he thoroughly enjoyed and even considered as a career—there was room for him at the company. “I showed up in a suit and tie,” he remembers. “Dad said, ‘You know how to type, right?’ I did, and he presented me with a two-foot-high stack of letters from customers. There were questions, complaints, all sorts of issues. ‘I want you to answer these,’ he said.”
It was wonderful training for the CEO-to-be. He had to go to all areas of the company and out to dealers to get the answers he needed to respond properly. “It taught me a lot about the guts of the company and dealing with customers,” he says. ”It was a beautiful way for me to get me involved.”
That involvement might have been in the accounting and financial area. Although he had majored in marketing and advertising at URI, Brad had excelled in accounting. But his father pointed out that they could hire excellent accountants. Marketing and advertising characterized the company, and it was now time for Brad to apply those skills. Under the tutelage of Russ and the Advertising Agency, Potter-Hazlehurst, Brad began learning how to create stylish yet consistent ads that conveyed the Cross image to the customers Cross wanted.
Up until that time A. T. Cross was thought of mainly as a producer of gift products for Christmas season. They were busy from October to December with business falling off after the holiday season.
But the 12-carat gold filled propel-repel ball point with matching pencil was starting to be thought of as a great gift product, not just at Christmas, but for graduations, bar mitzvahs, and other special occasions.
And they were alert to opportunities. For example, when they learned that Parker Pen was coming out with a gold plate product, they developed a marketing campaign for all dealers stressing the A. T. Cross gold filled mark. “Don’t be confused by gold plate,” they warned.
“Opportunities like this started to help us grow tremendously,” Brad remembers. “Dad had the marketing ability to spot them.”
But in the late 50s and early 60s dissention was building in the company. Ellery worried that they would saturate the market. “I would sit there and listen,” Brad says. “We were only doing $3 to $4-million a year. How was that going to saturate the market? But they were both so adamant about making their part of the business tremendously successful.”
Ellery wanted to make the absolutely perfect product. He favored hand-crafted production over machines, and, in fact, there were relatively few machines in the productions process. The results were perfection, or close to it. If there was a nick that could only be seen through a jeweler’s loop, Ellery insisted it could not be sold.
Russ, while also revering quality, worried that a company so obsessed with hand- crafted perfection could not survive in the industry. “We have to keep this business growing,” he warned, “or someone will come in and kick us out of the way.”
No ship can have two captains, but just who was to navigate the company out of this predicament was complicated by the ownership structure. Ethel Boss, Russ’s mother and Ellery’s step-mother owned 60 of the company’s 71 shares, and, on her passing, each was to inherit 30. Ellery owned three shares and Russ two, and the remaining six were owned by a manufacturing foreman who had retired in 1942.
A long and, at times, acrimonious struggle for control, which eventually reached the Rhode Island Supreme Court, ensued. But all through that five-year litigation period production and sales surged. By May, 1964 when the court decided in Russ’s favor, the company, now relocated to Lincoln, had over 300 employees. Brad was vice president heading up marketing and sales. And when Ron finished his service as a U.S. Coast Guard Officer in 1965 there was, not just room, but urgent need for him. He would soon be taking his uncle’s place managing production.
Ellery sold his 46 percent interest in the company to Standard International (aka Standex), and, virtually from the start, relations between that corporation and the Bosses were not good. Standex President Daniel Hogan early-on accused Russ, now president and CEO, of being more interested in product quality than profit. At one point he confronted him saying, “What are you doing. You plow profit back into the company and squander it on employee bonuses, when you should be distributing it to the shareholders. I won’t stand for it!”
He would not have to much longer. By 1971 the company was flourishing with annual sales of $20.2 million and 700 employees, and the Bosses decided to go public. A.T. Cross was listed on the American Stock Exchange, and Standex cashed out their interest.
In retrospect, Ellery’s concerns about potentially diminished quality were misplaced. The modern equipment now being brought into the plant was far more precise than what it replaced, and all operations requiring hand processing got it. A. T. Cross quality was undisputed. There were desktop pen and pencil sets from the Oval Office in the White House to Buckingham Palace and in the offices and homes of national leaders throughout the world.
The Bosses always understood that the real key to product quality, beyond the precision of manufacturing equipment, were the skills and dedication of the employees—all of the employees. Russ stressed to Brad and Ron that they must make employees feel that “they were working for pretty good people, that they wanted to come to work at Cross, that they always had their job with us. If we lose that, our people won’t worry about quality, they won’t give a damn about the company, and they won’t get the job done.”
This is a management philosophy that has made Cross the Rhode Island employer everyone wanted to work for. Wages and benefits are above the mean for the job, and there are handsome year-end bonuses. Problem solving and constructive criticism are encouraged. Promoting from within and hiring employees’ family members and friends is routine. Employees are thought of as extended family and the employees reciprocate with steadfast loyalty.
Producing the finest products, they believed, required a parallel environment: pleasant and attractive, clean, well-lit, with the best tools and most comfortable work stations. The Boss family understood the need for occasional time off to attend to personal and family problems, including illness. They permitted departmental celebrations during working hours to acknowledge and recognize employees and events. They knew these parties helped consolidate the workforce and solidify teamwork.
Examples of the family’s concerns for employees and employees’ dedication to the company are legion. During a visit to a doctor’s office for a back injury, Russ was impressed with how comfortable the chairs were in the doctor’s waiting room. When he learned they had been specially designed by the doctor, he ordered 400-- one for each Cross employee with a desk job.
During the great blizzard of 1978, when traffic and most business operations along the East Coast ground to a halt, dedicated Cross employees walked to the plant and worked 24-hours shifts not only minding the systems but clearing eight-foot snow drifts from the roof.
In accepting one of many awards accorded him, CEO Brad Boss declined to take credit. “It was everybody working here who were responsible,” he said. “I was just trying to hang on and make sure we didn’t screw up by changing the model and what we were doing. Our goal was always to make the finest products available anywhere.”
And they have backed that up with a bona fide and realistic lifetime mechanical guarantee. For example when customers would return a product, an employee in the Repair Department would state, "No Charge, it's always a pleasure to be of service". This is part of the Philosophy that drove and nurtured the success of Cross.
Both Brad and Ron have continued their Dad's mandate of giving back. Ron with the donation of the Alexis Allen Boss Tennis Center at Dartmouth and Brad for the Ice Hockey Arena at the University of Rhode Island in honor of his father for his part in the growth of youth Ice Hockey.
Their creativity, ingenuity, skill, business acumen and benevolence toward their employees earned Brad Boss, Russ Boss and Walter Russell Boss a 1980 induction into the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame, the highest civic honor that can be conferred upon a Rhode Islander.
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