High Achievers and Other Interesting People: Elmer Winter, Co-Founder of Manpower

Elmer Winter, and his law partner madly scrambled to find emergency secretarial help. That ordeal later inspired them to start Manpower, an international temp agency, an achievement truly worthy of note in our series of ‘High Achievers and Other Interesting People‘.

The following was brought to us from Douglas Martin, of The New York Times:

In April 1948, Mr. Winter and his brother-in-law and law partner, Aaron Scheinfeld, had to file a brief on a tight deadline with the Wisconsin Supreme Court. They could find no one to type it.

They finally hunted down their former secretary and persuaded her to toil until dawn. Their problem was solved, but they thought about the experience. They recalled a legal client who supplied short-term laborers for unloading freight cars. Maybe they could do the same thing for a broader range of employers.

So they scraped together $7,000, rented a small store in Milwaukee and went into the business of arranging for temporary employees. A friend suggested the obvious and almost perfect name Manpower; most of the original employees were women.

The first year did not go so well. They lost $9,000, despite long lines of typists, stenographers and bookkeepers eager for the temporary work they spoke of in a newspaper ad. But the two decided to stay with their new sideline because what few paying customers they had were happy. By the end of 1949, they had covered their losses and made a small profit.

Six decades later, Manpower has grown to be the world’s third-largest company in the business of providing temporary and other staffing services. It has 4,100 offices in 82 countries, and 400,000 clients, ranging from small businesses to huge corporations.

Manpower has twice been acquired by other companies and emerged as an independent company both times. Today it offers many employment services beyond temporary labor, including the placements of permanent employees. Workers accrue benefits based on how long they work, even if they work for many employers.

Mr. Scheinfeld, the dreamer, died in 1970, but Mr. Winter, the nuts-and-bolts guy, stayed until 1976, when he retired. Manpower then had offices in 20 countries.

But Mr. Winter kept an office in the building, and a title, chairman of the advisory council. He also kept busy: he formed an organization to promote business ties between the United States and Israel; served as president of the American Jewish Committee; led efforts to aid Milwaukee youth; and was beloved by generations of Manpower employees who relished his stories and lavender sports coats.

Moreover, he made something of a name for himself as a sculptor, specializing in turning automobile bumpers into works of art. A particularly soaring creation was titled “To Dream the Impossible Dream.” Mr. Winter chuckled at the reaction of a man who viewed one of his deliberately mangled works in Philadelphia: “I don’t know anything about art, but this guy is a lousy welder,“ he said.

Another of Mr. Winter’s accomplishments was writing 13 how-to books on subjects like how to be a better secretary.

His winning personality, sugar-coated with modesty, never hurt him. “I was not an outstanding kind of guy that was bound to succeed,” Mr. Winter said in a documentary about Manpower’s history last year. “I was just a nice guy.”

Elmer Louis Winter was born in Milwaukee on March 6, 1912. His father, Sigmund, was an immigrant who owned a clothing store. Elmer’s first job in 1922 was delivering fruits and vegetables by horse-drawn cart to brewery workers. He went to Milwaukee public schools, and earned economics and law degrees from the University of Wisconsin.

In 1936, he was offered a job in the Chicago law firm owned by Mr. Scheinfeld for $30 a month, according to Entrepreneur magazine’s Encyclopedia of Entrepreneurs When the firm expanded to Milwaukee, Mr. Winter managed the new office. After Manpower’s success seemed certain, both men retired from practicing law.

Private employment agencies had existed in the United States since 1863, but the modern temporary staffing industry began after World War II with the founding of Kelly Girls by William Kelly in 1946. Later called Kelly Services, it was the first multiregional temporary agency. Manpower was the first to expand beyond clerical help into industrial positions, the journal, Regulation, reported in 1998.

For workers, the appeal of the temporary-help agencies is flexibility and variety. For companies, it is the ability to react quickly to changes in labor needs. Training programs Mr. Winter helped establish benefited both sides.

Secretaries were given free brush-up courses that included training on new office machines like electric typewriters, The New York Times reported in 1966. Instructors tried to instill confidence in women returning to the work force after an absence.

“They are made to believe they can cope with any modern business situation.” Mr. Winter said.

Mr. Winter died on Oct. 22 in Mequon, Wis. He was 97 and lived in Fox Point, Wis. Mr. Winter’s wife of 54 years, the former Nannette Rosenberg, died in 1990. He is survived by his wife, the former Hope Melamed; his daughters, Sue Freeman, Lynn Winter Gross and Martha Gross Tracy; eight grandchildren; and 13 great-grandchildren.

When Mr. Winter was 95, he bought a red sports car. When he was 96, he passed a driver’s test to renew his license until the age of 104. Three weeks before his death, he drove to Manpower’s headquarters to put in his usual day’s work.

“Hang in there, Elmer,” said the sign on his desk.


Leave a Reply