A legacy has been left behind with the passing of the first-ever female CEO in the hardware and sporting goods industries. Gertrude Seelig Danziger of Homak Manufacturing, one of the largest sheet metal fabricators in America, died peacefully this past Thursday at the ripe age of 102 years old. Gertrude, playfully known as ‘Trudy,’ was professionally a trailblazer for women in the sporting goods industry.
Trudy was known as the “Toolbox Lady,” at trade shows and became the only female CEO of a major manufacturer in the hardware and sporting goods industries. She was born October 24, 1919, in Chicago, and during her adult life was well known as the primary supplier of roller cabinets and toolboxes for most of the major retailers, including Walmart, Kmart, Lowe’s, The Home Depot, True Value, Ace Hardware, Montgomery Ward, Coast-to-Coast, Costco, Meijer, Pep Boys, Fingerhut, and NAPA.
This is her interview as told by her son…
What/who inspired your mom?
I am not sure that anyone inspired her. She just saw going into Homak as the thing to do when her husband became sick. I also think she saw it as important to my father since he had worked so hard getting it started. I think that she thought I, her son, would eventually go into it (I unfortunately didn’t) and saw running it as a responsibility and then started to enjoy it as she learned more about business and finance, and the company grew.
What did your mom enjoy most about her job?
I think the people with whom she worked and the opportunity to help people. Everyone liked her. I think that things worked out for her well because, although she was clearly the boss, she really respected and listened to the people at Homak because she realized they knew things that she didn’t. As time progressed, she gained a very good knowledge of finance. She also like seeing some of her ideas for products brought to market. One that comes to mind was a steel drawer or container that would slide under a bed in a dorm room for storage. She thought of this when I went to college. She always was trying to think of new things (she even patented a suitcase handle which held things and marketed it long before meeting my father)
Tell us about any community projects you are involved in and why you support them?
In her pre-marriage years, she active in the Jewish community and JUF. She was president of the Youth Division of Temple Sholom. Later in her life, when my brother and I were young, she taught a class at Temple Jeremiah in Northfield, IL. I think that my mother attached some importance to her Jewish identity, however, like my father did not make it a cornerstone of her existence.
If you had the power to solve one and only one problem in the world, what would it be and why?
I think that one thing my mother wanted was for everyone to have an opportunity to improve and better themselves. She frequently advocated that Homak support anyone in the factory who wanted to go to school and encouraged people to take courses. This extended, at times, to the near ludicrous when she suggested sending some factory workers who could barely read to night school!
What is the one book that your mom would recommend our community should read and why?
When and why did you start your dad start the family business? This is a good question and I have a letter written near DDay from my father, when I believe he was in Europe, to his sister in which he states that there is going to be an industrial revolution in the US after the war and that he wants to be a part of it. He started Homak in 1947. My grandfather , Sigmund H Danziger, had his own sales firm and represented, among other things in the housewares industry, bathroom scales. He died while my father was in college at the University of Illinois in Champaign. For financial reasons, he then transferred to the University of Chicago, which was near his home in Hyde Park, Chicago, My father then took on running his father’s sales firm and started calling on accounts. He maintained the business with the help of his sister Clara while stationed in Europe during WW II. (I have a fair amount of information on this (including many handwritten letters and could further elaborate)
To what do you attribute your moms success?
She was both smart and had wonderful people skills. She got along with everyone (something that I lack!). She could really empathize with people but be tough when she had to be. Importantly, and in part due to my father, she was surrounded by and worked with very capable people in business. She always saw or looked for the good in people. One example of this was when several people wanted Scott, a salesman, to be fired because they did not think that he was a good salesman, but she thought he was and over-ruled the Vice-President of Sales.
What is unique about your family business?
Homak lead in three separate industries, hardware (roller cabinets/tool boxses), sporting goods (gun cabinets and safes), and hospital and crash carts. I think that under my mother, the company was very different than the competitors, many of whom went out of business, because it was set up from the start for large, high throughput and capacity manufacturing which was required to take on large customers, e.g., Sears, and box store, e.g., Home Depot, Lowes, etc., as they evolved. When Homak entered the gun cabinet marketplace, no one else in the space could produce high volumes at such low prices (the competitors were not set up as high throughput assembly lines) to meet price-points for such mass merchandisers as Walmart, Sports Authority, etc.
The people she worked with were excellent. We had the best talent in the business. Richard Junge, the vice-president of manufacturing, both ran the plant perfectly but also came up with many new products which could be produced within our facilities, ranging from large roller and garage cabinets to gun vaults. Although Homak occupied a variety of plants as it grew under my mother, The plant and warehouse was eventually 430,000 sq feet in Bedford Park, Illinois and had one of the first and largest powder paint systems in the country. It gave us a tremendous early competitive advantage. Michael Moser, Vice-president of sales gained entry and serviced with a sales rep force of over 200 people hardware, housewares, and sporting goods industries. John Dopak was in charge of the hospital line of crash and isolation carts into the major distributors, e.g., Medline.
What advice would your mom give to someone just starting out? Probably to do what will make you a living (be somewhat practical) and something you enjoy.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to share with our readers?
My mother had a new business idea nearly every day and was always willing to discuss the ideas of others. She was very analytical and always ready to try new products.
The Toolbox Lady’s legacy lives on with her family and her untold story as a noteworthy female in history.