Tuesday, March 3, 2009
Residence: Vienna, Austria
Occupation: Manager, Beck, Koller & Co., Vienna
Location at time of fire: Passenger decks
Died in wreck
Otto Reichhold, born in Berlin in April of 1895, was manager of Beck, Koller & Company, a paint and varnish manufacturer owned and operated by the Reichhold family in Vienna, Austria. Reichhold had made a number of previous steamship voyages to the United States, including a 1913 trip to visit Doctor Edward Rumely in La Porte, Indiana. Doctor Rumely ran the Interlaken School in La Porte, and the 18 year-old Otto Reichhold visited the school as a student.
The Reichhold family had been renowned varnish makers who had long served the Austrian royal household. In the years following World War I, when the Austro-Hungarian Empire was broken apart and the old trappings of feudalism faded, it was no longer of any particular benefit for a business to have served the Emperor, as it had been before. By the mid 1920s Otto Reichhold, then in his early thirties, and his brother Helmuth (just barely in his twenties) co-managed a smaller, stripped-down version of the family’s paint and varnish business, which was called Beck, Koller & Co. The brothers kept looking for ways to improve and expand the company.
They found their opportunity in the burgeoning automobile market.
The concept of mass-production had begun to take hold, and American entrepreneurs such as Ford, Durant, and the Dodge brothers developed assembly lines to more efficiently (and inexpensively) produce automobiles… thus, making them available to the masses. One of the biggest snags in auto production of this kind, however, was the cumbersome, time-consuming process of painting the cars once they’d been assembled. The paint had to be applied by brush and with newly-developed spray guns, and the paint took far too long to dry so that a car could be delivered. It was common for automobile manufacturers to have anywhere from two to four weeks of inventory in the process of being painted at any given time. This inability to keep pace with the assembly lines was an industry-wide problem.
Helmuth Reichhold emigrated to the United States in the early 1920s and went to work in the paint department of Ford Motors, quickly rising through the ranks to become the technical head of the department within a year. In winter of 1925, Helmuth (who had Americanized his name to "Henry") heard from Otto back in Europe that the family company had developed oil-soluble, phenol-based paints that covered in one or two coats, and then dried quickly (in hours rather than days) with the application of a small amount of heat.
Having purchased 20 100-pound bags of the substance through Otto, Henry Reichhold named the new product "Beckacite", after the name of the family firm, and then started his own business selling Beckacite directly to Ford and, to a much lesser extent, to other automobile manufacturers. Henry and Otto Reichhold quickly realized that their Vienna factory was not going to be able to keep up with the American auto industry's demand for Beckacite. so, operating under the Beck, Koller & Co. name, Henry set up a factory and sales offices in Detroit.
Otto Reichhold, back in Europe, had begun dealing with the British automobile industry, and had expanded the Vienna branch of Beck, Koller and Co. on this basis. He sailed to the United States in 1928 aboard the steamship Deutschland, and spent a few months in Detroit with Henry working out the details of the company's new American operation. It was decided that Otto would focus on production and development, and Henry, along with his business partner Charles O'Connor, would concentrate more on sales.
And so, the Reichhold's businesses began to grow, establishing research laboratories in the United States to meet the increasing demands of Ford Motors, which made a point of selling its cars in as many different colors as it could. Beck, Koller & Co. faced its share of difficulties during the Great Depression, but the company survived and gradually began to set up smaller subsidiary companies in the United States and in Europe to produce the raw materials needed to create the various paint and resin lines Beck, Koller & Co. sold.
Otto Reichhold, who continued to be based in Europe, would periodically travel to the United States to meet with Henry and discuss the further development of their international business. During the first week of May in 1937, Otto was on his way from Europe for one of these meetings. He had written to Henry to inform him of his plans to fly over on the German passenger airship Hindenburg, mentioning how keenly he was looking forward to the experience. Otto left his wife Rosa and their daughter behind in Vienna, and boarded the Hindenburg in Frankfurt on May 3rd. Henry made his way from Detroit to Lakehurst, NJ to meet Otto when he landed on May 6th.
It is not known exactly where Otto was when the Hindenburg caught fire. He may have been in his cabin, or perhaps in the starboard lounge (towards which the wind, and ultimately the fire itself, was blowing at the time of the accident, and where, unfortunately, a number of passengers ended up trapped and unable to escape).
Otto Reichhold's possible location in the starboard lounge at the time of the fire.
Henry Reichhold and an associate, Dr. Stefan Baum, were standing in the visitors' area next to the Lakehurst Naval Air Station's huge airship hangar, watched in horror as the airship burst into flames and fell to the ground. They saw people leaping to the ground and running from the airship, and were hopeful that Otto was among them. They searched the airfield and the survivor lists long into the night, but as the hours passed their hopes began to fade.
As it turned out, Otto Reichhold was unable to get out of the wreck, and was burnt badly enough that it was several days before his body was identified. Otto's body was subsequently shipped back to Vienna aboard the steamship Hamburg on May 13th, 1937.
Following Otto’s death, Henry was left to shoulder the burden of responsibility for the company, and became CEO of Beck, Koller & Co. which, in the year following Otto’s death, was renamed Reichhold Chemicals, Inc. The company flourished and was still running strong at the beginning of the 21st century.
Henry Reichhold retired in 1982, having made Reichhold Chemicals into a Fortune 500 company. In fact, at the time of his retirement, Henry Reichhold had been Chief Executive Officer of a Fortune 500 company longer than any other CEO. He passed away in December of 1989.
Otto Reichhold is buried in a cemetery in Vienna, with his brother Henry beside him.
Special thanks to Gerald List, Otto Reichhold's grandson, who provided me with the photo of his grandfather seen here, as well as with some factual corrections courtesy of his mother, Herr Reichhold's daughter.
Thanks also to Laurie-Ellen Shumaker, whose father worked for Reichhold chemicals for almost 40 years, and who shared with me her father's written history of Beck & Koller/Reichhold Chemicals.