By Cheryl Conway
In his first book, Mendham Borough author Jack Buckman stitches together history, business and drama in a non-fiction book about the Singer Sewing Machine Company.
Recently self-published in May 2016 through Dog Ear Publishing, Buckman’s book is titled “Unraveling The Threads: The Life, Death and Resurrection of the Singer Sewing Machine Company, America’s First Multi-National Corporation.”
Buckman’s book recently won the Dog Ear Publishing Award of Literary Excellence, a recognition given to nine of the 21015 titles received, that flattered and caught Buckman by surprise.
“I think it’s a good read,” admits Buckman. “It’s not all balance sheets and numbers,” he says, adding that one of his obstacles was trying to make a business history story with numbers and facts interesting with twists and true tales of the drama and players behind the first corporate giant with manufacturing factories around the world.
“My wife is proud of me for having done it and for having done it well,” Buckman adds.
Buckman, 78, spent 17 years working as an executive with the Singer Company in various positions in New York, London, Paris and Chicago.
When he was attending Northwestern University in the 1960s, after serving in the army, “I was in the first wave of NBA’s. When I was looking for a job Singer came to Northwestern,” he says as the company was looking to hire from “prominent business schools.” During his senior year, he had been working on a case method involving an international company.
“I learned after I joined Singer, that was the Singer Company,” he explains ironically about the “nightmare case” from his college years.
While working for the Singer Co., Buckman spent 10 years in France and worked closely with the general manager there, Jacques Ehrsam, who was the grandson of the first general manager who worked at Singer.
When the company became involved in a hostile takeover, Buckman left and ended up working at Yale University in 1983 as its vice-president and chief financial officer. He was at Yale when the idea of writing about Singer developed by an economic history professor, “who was a nut about France,” became intrigued by Jack’s description of Singer’s history and birthplace of many of the modern retail tools now taken for granted.
That professor suggested that Buckman prepare a syllabus for a possible course or even a book. Buckman says he never found the time to write that syllabus, but instead decided to write the book.
Although he still maintains an engineering firm business in New Haven, Conn., Buckman retired ten years ago. He left Yale in 1988 and worked as the chief financial officer of J. Crew and then at a private equity firm in New York, before becoming the principle owner at Westcott and Mapes Inc., the second oldest engineering firm in Connecticut, he says.
“When I retired, I kept talking about it,” says Buckman, “My wife [Dr. Linda Gillam] said ‘enough talk, do it.’” That was eight years ago when Buckman began his research, and five years ago when he began writing the book about the Singer Corporation.
Buckman found an interesting link that the Elizabeth factory was the largest single product factory in the world and was the repository for all of Singer’s records.
“When Singer closed that factory,” all of those documents were given to the state of N.J., and the same for the state of N.Y. All of those records ended up at the Wisconsin Historical Society, where Buckman turned for a lot of his research for his book.
He found that in 1851, Isaac Singer and his partners wrote the accounting records from early on.
“They were hand-typed, those records, 23 linear feet, eight feet tall. They were in the process of curating them.” Buckman would fly back and forth for his research; bulk of the work was then done online.
Taking those facts and creating an interesting book was the next challenge.
“Being financial I tend to be linear,” Buckman admits. “A lot of agents, a lot of rejections,” he says of the many manuscripts submitted. One agent told him, “There’s a story in there somewhere,” so he suggested that Buckman does some “poking” at narrative non-fiction.
“I had 21 drafts of that book,” he admits. He says he found “good fortune I live with a good editor,” his wife who cleaned up the final draft.
In the book’s synopsis, “A brilliant tinkerer/inventor and a lawyer/marketing genius partnered to create Singer, a retail colossus that over 120 years grew into a universally recognized brand synonymous with quality and value. Following World War II, four successive CEOs made a series of catastrophic decisions in their efforts to redefine the company as competing in industries other than sewing. Of the four, one was forced out and subsequently murdered, one died of an unexpected heart attack just as he was about to defend the company from a takeover, one succeeded in the takeover, then dismembered the company before going to prison, and one played investors, tax authorities, securities regulators, and banks against each other until he suddenly just vanished. The machinations of these four comprised a quarter-century-long soap opera, with power struggles, hostile takeovers, tax evasion, fraud, and even flight to China just a few steps ahead of the authorities.”
Buckman recommends his books to anyone in a professional career or business career, those who likes history or drama.
“It’s a book which has several dimensions,” he says. It combines business history; tells the story of Isaac Singer with his 22 children and three simultaneous households; gives political insight into corporations; describes the birth and development of sewing machines.
“Singer sold a million machines in Russia in 1918” during the revolution, Buckman says. It never sold that many sewing machines until after WWII. Everything before that was mass production.
When the sewing machine first came out it sold for $125 in mid-1900. “That was 25 percent of annual income,” he notes. “It was like buying an automobile.” It was mass production which enabled Singer to “drive the price down” to $35 per machine, which was still expensive during that time, Buckman adds.
The sewing machine was the “first in-home appliance,” Buckman says, requiring many marketing innovations such as installment selling and in-home demonstrations. “It was not easy to use, right out of the gate and never has been.”
By the end of the 19th century, Singer controlled 80 percent of the world market, adds Buckman.
“It’s a good story,” says Buckman, as to why people should read his book. “It’s a good tale, light parts, political parts; take-over battles of the 60’s and 70’s; there’s history, business history, corporate intrigue.”
On the local front, at one point Singer employed more than 20,000 people in N.J. at the Elizabethport product factory, Wayne data center, Denville research laboratory, Clifton mechanized sewing and work handling systems and Mount Laurel information systems.
Looking ahead, Buckman has plans to write another story about Isaac Singer’s life and maybe another book on 99 year old Jacques Ehrsam and his life in France.
“I’ve spent many hours with him interviewing him over the past decade, lots of tape recording, generous with artifacts.”
Buckman’s book, “Unraveling The Threads: The Life, Death and Resurrection of the Singer Sewing Machine Company, America’s First Multi-National Corporation,” is available online through Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and can be ordered at bookstores. Printed version is $19.95.
On Thur., Nov. 12, Buckman has been invited to speak at Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield.
For more information, go to www.unravelingsingersewing.com.