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The Friendship that Helped Build Cummins Inc. into an Industry Giant

August 20, 2018
        Headshots of Clessie Cummins (left) and J. Irwin Miller (right).

Clessie Cummins’ mark on Columbus, Indiana, is undeniable. The company that bears his name continues to find success as a Fortune 500 company almost 100 years after its founding.

While Cummins’ initial inventions and engineering became the backbone to the then-called Cummins Engine Company, Cummins’ business partners W.G. Irwin and later his nephew J. Irwin Miller gave the organization fiscal strength as well as public faces for leadership.

As the producers of the new documentary Clessie Cummins: Hoosier Inventor put it, it’s no surprise that Clessie Cummins and J. Irwin Miller were as close personally as they were professionally.

When he was just 20, Cummins began working as a chauffeur for the wealthy Irwin family in 1908. Miller would be born about a year later.

“With the right bit of elbow grease and more than a little luck and providence, Clessie used his skills and his relationship with the Irwin family to co-found what has become one of the premiere engine companies on the planet,” said Andie Redwine, co-producer on Clessie Cummins: Hoosier Inventor.

Redwine says that while growing up in a wealthy family, Miller wasn’t allowed to play with other neighborhood children. But he was allowed to spend much of his time with Cummins, to whom he referred as “The Admiral,” even until later in life.

“[Co-producer Storme Wood] and I both wonder if this relationship gave J. Irwin Miller a perspective on what it means to have to really work hard for a living,” Redwine said.

Miller held that perspective in high regard. A short feature from Cummins Inc. says that after graduating from Yale and Oxford, Miller’s first job was bagging groceries:

After his hiring at the company, Miller went on to rise through the ranks of Cummins Inc. management and pushed it to turn a profit for the first time in 15 years. Miller’s leadership is largely credited with elevating Cummins Inc. to what it is today.

Miller’s management expertise would be the perfect foil to Cummins’ inventive spirit. Redwine says Cummins once tried to quit his own company because he preferred inventing in a shop and speaking to customers on the road to sitting behind a desk.

“He was more interested in innovation, and [financier and Cummins Inc. co-founder] W.G. Irwin and J. Irwin Miller were interested in monetizing that innovation,” Redwine said. “They all needed one another.”

Irwin was also known for putting people first. He supported unionization in his company, and Redwine says he was made an honorary union member after his retirement. He also helped organize the March on Washington for the Civil Rights Movement. In 1967, Esquire proposed that Irwin even become President of the United States.

“Miller embraced the trendy postwar notion that a healthy company can’t exist without a healthy community,” Joann Muller wrote for Forbes. “Miller created a stakeholder model that balanced the interests of employees, shareholders, customers, suppliers, regulators and the community in every decision. Unlike most other companies, Cummins stuck with it for the next 60 years.”

That commitment to the community came through in the aesthetic appearance of Columbus as well, which still today is known around the world as a bright spot of architectural creativity.

“Columbus, Ind., and J. Irwin Miller are almost holy words in architectural circles,” architecture critic Paul Goldberger wrote for The New York Times in 1976. “There is no other place in which a single philanthropist has placed so much faith in architecture as a means to civic improvement.”

North Christian Church in Columbus, IN. The North Christian Church is often cited as an example of Columbus' commitment to architectural creativity. (Photo: North Christian Church)

Clessie Cummins would later leave the company, a decision Redwine says upset Miller. “I think that as a young man, [Miller] worried about running the engine company effectively without Clessie,” she said. “Clessie just wanted to try things and make things. He didn’t want to run an engine company...He wanted to build things and run experiments.”

But the two kept in contact on a regular basis through letters over the years. Many had to do with matters involving the company, but others kept a friendly tone.

According to Redwine, when Cummins passed away in 1968, Miller told others that Clessie was his best friend. And when Miller died in 2004, he was buried just down the way from Cummins in the Columbus City Cemetery.

And it’s that relationship that underscored decades of building Cummins Inc. into what it is today. It was a relationship “like two brothers or close family members,” Redwine said, “it was warm, rocky, and endearing.”

Featured photo: Clessie Cummins (left) and J. Irwin Miller. (Photos: Cummins Inc. (left) / Columbus, IN)

For the full story behind Clessie Cummins and Cummins Inc., you can watch Clessie Cummins: Hoosier Inventor at 8 p.m. ET Monday, August 20 on WTIU Public Television and live on the WTIU Facebook page.