The Power of Patient Capital: Clessie Cummins & Irwin Family


Here is an excerpt from our new book, Intelligent Fanatics: Standing on the Shoulders of Giants:

The Power Of Patient Capital: Clessie Cummins & Irwin Family

Cummins Engine Company

“The only survivor in a once crowded field of independent engine makers, [Cummins] is a tough competitor in a dynamic and unforgiving marketplace. This tough mindedness is a trait that has contributed in important ways to the company’s survival.”
—Jeffery Cruikshank and David Sicilia, in The Engine That Could

In October of 1908, Henry Ford started production of the Model T, known as the first affordable automobile. In 1909, Ford Motor Company produced 18,600 automobiles, and by 1920 annual production surpassed one million automobiles. The gasoline engine became the standard. Gas engines were small and light, easily fitted into an automobile, and benefited from Standard Oil’s use of a formerly discarded byproduct of the oil refining process—gasoline. Still, the gasoline engine had its weaknesses: namely, it needed more torque if it was to carry large, heavy loads, and greater fuel efficiency for commercial applications.

Dr. Randolph Diesel, in 1897, had developed another form of combustion engine. Instead of combustion by an electric spark, Diesel’s engine utilized thermodynamics. His engines injected fuel into compressed hot air, creating combustion. These diesel engines were much more efficient at producing greater amounts of torque with better fuel efficiency and were flexible in the type of oil they consumed.

The only initial drawback to diesel engines was size and weight. The Christian Science Monitor reported, in 1929, that “in order to stand the strain of the intense heat generated in the combustion chamber, only the strongest and heaviest metals could be used throughout the power plant.”1 These drawbacks were a problem for use in automobiles. Thus, boats and other large marine vessels, along with stationary applications, were the initial market for diesel engines. If the diesel engine was to make an impact on cars and trucks, it needed a redesign, which proved to be incredibly difficult.

A chauffeur in Columbus, Indiana, would crack the code. Clessie Cummins, a classic tinkerer, would revolutionize diesel engine design in his spare time. This is one of the greatest stories of “patient” capital in American, and possibly world, history. It would take nearly two decades for his business to get off the ground, but he and his backers pivoted into the automobile industry at the eleventh hour at the start of the Depression. There was no demand for diesel engines in the early twentieth century; Cummins created the demand.

From there, in a capital-intensive industry, competition became fierce. The Japanese would try to invade in the 1980s—Cummins Engine Company would survive and adapt. There were multiple independent engine manufacturers prior to World War II, and today only one remains: Cummins Engine Company. Clessie Cummins and the Irwin family would go on to create one of the few truly powerful brands in American automobile manufacturing. Cummins Inc. is ninety-eight years old at the time of this writing. It has maintained its dominance in the truck engine industry since it developed its first engine for trucks in the 1930s.

Many intelligent fanatic–led organizations had rough beginnings, and Cummins Engine Company was no different. There were many missteps and challenges along the way; however, the basic foundation created by Clessie Cummins, W. G. Irwin, and J. Irwin Miller have helped the company adapt to extreme challenges. More people should know the story of Clessie Cummins and Cummins Engine Company.

You can read Clessie Cummins story in our latest book, Intelligent Fanatics: Standing on the Shoulders of Giants. Become a Member and we’ll send you the eBook-Kindle version for Free. [Join Today]

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