Uncle Cy.

November 10, 2014 § 7 Comments

American Cyanamid, in print.Like most, growing up I had uncles: Giulio, Ernie, Emil, Teddy and Bob.

And then there was Uncle Cy, the uncle who paid the bills, kept us in medical insurance, sent me, my sister and brother to college, and gave my father the generous retirement plan most workers now have to engineer for themselves.

Practically unknown in this era of shareholders-first, this benevolent patriarch who made my family secure, upwardly mobile and ensured that my father, a chemical engineer, achieved his full potential, was a big corporation, American Cyanamid.

With the exception of his first couple of years in the workforce my dad worked for Uncle Cy for his whole career—“Uncle Cy” was what he called his place of employment.

It is anthropomorphizing to turn a corporation into a close relative, but just a little.

Like my dad, the management team that ran the company had made a home at Cyanamid. They knew their staff and made long-term investments in those employees and their research projects.

R&D timelines ranged ahead a decade or more. Those at the top were scientists too and they knew, good science takes time.

American Cyanamid Advertisement.My father started in Cyanamid’s Lederle lab working on pharmaceuticals and was transferred to the Agricultural division (probably the only shirt-and-tie worker to regularly bring manure home from work for his vegetable garden).

Although he was a trained research chemist my father had a unique gift for management. He could take the difficult or off-stride employee and find a project where that smart and educated nuisance could shine.

But it was the company’s policies that allowed him to search for that good-fit project.

The company invested in its employees, and employees returned the favor.

After college my brother went to work designing computer programs for Uncle Cy’s scientists–and then there were two Carl Fogelins on the payroll.

Unfortunately, for all intents and purposes, Uncle Cy passed away in 1994. My brother was part of the package bought out by American Home Products in a hostile takeover. He was acquired again when AHP spun off its agri-chemical division to BASF.

The attitude of the takeover companies—and the times—was mean, the timeline on a product’s development, or an employee’s tenure short.

Why invest in a product that would not come to market, like, right now?

Why keep a guy with deep experience and corporate memory when you could get two fresh out of the box for the same price?

It wasn’t perfect back in the days of benevolent but demanding uncles. Women and minorities had a tough time breaking in (although research companies like Cyanamid were ecumenical in their hiring practices and quick to welcome the best and brightest from around the globe; so many accents were heard in those shiny linoleum halls).

Uncle Cy was not unique. Educated, talented hard-working employees like my father found 9-5 homes in big corporations all over America. Loyalty was a two-way street and these longterm relationships nurtured a large and healthy middle class.

But times changed.

My brother, having been sold twice, retired very early from a job that was slowly killing him, just south of fifty in fact. He had been frugal, a good planner, and had gotten in on the tail end of a dying pension system.

And my dad, a good steward of what he had earned while working for Uncle Cy, left each of us enough money to, as he would say, “put a little tread on the bald tire” of our own less secure retirement plans.

Good old Uncle Cy.

Note: American Cyanamid, in its corporate life span gave us Tetracycline, Breck shampoo, Formica, Pine-sol, Centrum, Combat, Amdro, Cyalume lights, and many other products used every day in home, hospital, and field. 

In addition to my father and brother, Uncle Cy also employed my real uncle, Uncle Giul, and his wife, known in the family as Aunt Betty.

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§ 7 Responses to Uncle Cy.

  • Chris Fogelin says:

    I feared I wouldn’t be able to make my own mark when I went to Cyanamid, my father was that well known and respected there. That was not the case and soon I had my own niche, my own responsibilities, a place where I could make a name for myself. Dad and I rarely saw each other at work, he did his thing and I did mine. Our overlap was only about 16 months, he retired after 35+ years and I had just started a 14 year stint. There was a sense of family, of being on the same team. People took interest in what other folks were doing, it was a great environment to work in. Uncle Cy was always present, in both work and play. “He” sponsored company sports: bowling, softball, volleyball, golf, numerous others. There was an organization called Cy-Pace, that organized events, coordinated the sports teams, brought in onsite lecturers, acquired art for the hallways, an annual company picnic and so much more. There was a Cyanamid Credit Union on site and medical facilities, something you rarely see at companies now.

    When American Home Products bought us out, that all changed. Our division was the unwanted stepchild. Cynamid was bought out for our pharmaceutical and animal products business. We were pared down and expected to keep doing everything with less. (We lost a lot of good people during that time.) That went on for about 4 years till our division was sold off to BASF. I will admit that BASF was more accommodating than they had to be, but it was a huge change in culture. Some folks were able to adapt, others had a harder time. (I suspect I was in the latter category.) I worked for BASF for 8 years and as Amy mentioned, I retired early. I had to, no choice. Do I have regrets about leaving the work force early? Yes, but I must say I really am enjoying my independence. Looking back at my career, I realize that my time at Cyanamid was the best of times. I look at corporate culture now and wonder, has the door been closed, will we no longer have companies that are families? If so, we have lost something great to make a quick buck, very saddening.


    • Yes, Chris, that is what I lament, the loss of a culture that encouraged upward mobility while building strong business institutions. We are in the era of what have you done for me lately and the quick buck.

      The products and the careers nurtured by a company like Uncle Cy require time, patience, and an investment of faith and capital on both sides. The sad thing is that that model was a win/win. Now only the company wins, and then only in the very short term.


  • Bea Francis says:

    I’ll take this one to read to Dad when I visit him on Friday. We were just talking about Uncle Cy today and Dad’s lunch table group. When he retired in 1986, he offered to come back to share his slide rule knowledge should the computers ever break down. I have often marveled that he still gets his pension and health benefits, something my kids will never experience. Oh, and Dad was always bringing stuff home to spread on the garden. And then there was all the loose tea left over from some project!


  • KM Huber says:

    Investment seems to have lost its human side. I agree. My experience in the public sector also reflected the loss. Ironically–I think it is irony–if asked, most people would say the above model is what it “should” be but investment means accepting people for who and what they are. That usually means give and take. And we have lost the give side of the equation. Great post, Adrian.


  • My friend and fellow writer, Susan Womble sent me this note after reading the post:

    Just read your blog my dad was a drag line operator for American Cyanamid company phosphate division in mulberry –he still collects retirement and has health insurance from them what a small world.


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