HOBSON, ROBERT, industrialist; b. 13 Aug. 1861 in Berlin (Kitchener), Upper Canada, son of Joseph Hobson and Elizabeth Laidlaw; m. 31 Oct. 1891 Mary Andrewina Wood in Hamilton, Ont., and they had a daughter; d. there 25 Feb. 1926.
Robert Hobson was born into a railway family. A native of Guelph Township, his father was a highly respected civil engineer who rose to become chief engineer of the Grand Trunk Railway and whose accomplishments included the St Clair Tunnel at Sarnia, Ont., and the rebuilding of Montreal’s Victoria Bridge. After attending common schools in Berlin, Robert joined him in the construction department of the Great Western Railway. His family’s social status and residence in Hamilton from 1875 brought him into the orbit of hardware merchant Andrew Trew Wood*, who stood at the centre of an ambitious group of capitalists. Hobson married his daughter, and in 1896 Wood turned to his son-in-law to help administer the Hamilton Blast Furnace Company, of which he was president. It had just begun smelting pig iron and though Hobson knew nothing about making iron and steel, he became the firm’s secretary-treasurer in February 1896. He threw himself into the job, thus beginning a lifelong fascination with the industry, and soon impressed the board of directors with his managerial abilities. When the company merged with the local Ontario Rolling Mills to create the Hamilton Steel and Iron Company Limited in 1899, he became the new firm’s secretary and assistant general manager, and he would take over as general manager in 1904.
The first steel was poured on 15 May 1900, but steel production was then a risky business in Canada. Unlike its giant competitors in Sault Ste Marie, Ont., and Sydney, N.S., the smaller Hamilton firm pursued a cautious policy of slow growth and diversification of products to serve many different markets. The company’s plant in the city’s suburban east end became a nucleus around which many large corporations established metalworking factories. Hobson would help attract a number of them, including International Harvester in 1902 and National Steel Car in 1913.
In 1910 an opportunity emerged to integrate the firm’s primary production with the manufacturing of secondary products. That year the Montreal-based promoter William Maxwell Aitken* acquired options on the Montreal Rolling Mills and Dominion Wire Manufacturing and, rejecting a purchase offer from United States Steel, set out to organize a Canadian merger. He called together Charles Seward Wilcox, president of Hamilton Steel and Iron, Cyrus Albert Birge, president of a screw and tack company in Hamilton, and Lloyd Harris, head of Canada Bolt and Nut in Toronto. Out of their negotiations emerged the Steel Company of Canada Limited in June. Wilcox became president and Hobson general manager of this vastly bigger corporation; it established its headquarters in Hamilton, where Hobson provided the energy and skills needed to knit the new enterprise into a major corporate success, of which he would become president in 1916. For Hobson its emergence was marred only by the death of his daughter, Dorothy Wood, in April 1910 as a result of an automobile accident.
At the outbreak of World War I, Hobson was one of North America’s most prominent steel men. With his corporation’s rolling mills and finishing plants as assured consumers, he had been able to initiate a major expansion to create state-of-the-art facilities. Most important were the electrically powered mills completed in 1913 for breaking down steel ingots into blooms, bars, and rods. Increasingly Hobson and his plant supervisors were changing the complexion of the local labour force by recruiting large numbers of recent immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. By 1914 recession had hit the Steel Company, but when the war eventually brought a massively increased demand for steel, his company expanded again by adding a munitions department for turning out shells, for which it developed a special steel. In 1917 a rolling mill to produce sheet metal – vital for the growing automobile industry – was added and iron and coal properties were acquired in the United States. Known as Stelco from about 1915, the company emerged from the war as the largest, most diversified steel maker in Canada.
Hobson’s management style was paternalistic and authoritarian. His affability apparently built allegiance among his white-collar staff, but he crushed all efforts by his blue-collar workers to form unions. At the end of the war, however, he recognized that Stelco had to appeal more directly for their loyalty, and a company magazine, safety program, and pension plan were instituted. As president, Hobson had a particular responsibility to scout out markets and sound out broader trends in the international capitalist economy. In this work he travelled widely in Britain, Europe, and North America to meet with powerful businessmen. He also kept abreast of new developments in the industry by attending the annual meetings of the American Iron and Steel Institute, of which he had become a director by 1913. He was as well a fellow of the Royal Colonial Institute in London and an active member of the American Institute of Mining Engineers.
Hobson had not restricted himself to the fortunes of one company. He participated in a tight web of interlocking directorships in Hamilton, joining the boards of the Landed Banking and Loan Company and Tuckett Tobacco in 1910, the Bank of Hamilton in 1915, and Dominion Power and Transmission in 1917. A tall, genial, articulate man with a large white moustache and a jaunty air, he emerged as a leader when the business community wanted to express its collective concerns. In 1909 he was elected first chairman of the newly formed Hamilton branch of the Canadian Manufacturers’ Association, and he served on its executive several times over the next decade. When the Ontario commissioner investigating workers’ compensation, Sir William Ralph Meredith, visited Hamilton in 1912, Hobson took charge of presenting business’s case. He also became the leading voice of the Hamilton Employers’ Association, formed after the city’s production of munitions was disrupted by a huge strike in June 1916.
Like many other capitalists of this period, Hobson moved comfortably too within the emerging national business elites centred in Montreal and Toronto. He personally invested on a national scale, and was added to the boards of the Canadian Locomotive Company in Kingston, Toronto General Trusts, North Star Oil and Refining in Calgary, and Canada Steamship Lines in Montreal, of which his brother, Joseph Irvine, was treasurer. He was unapologetic about this widening capitalist vision. In 1915, when rumours suggested the Bank of Hamilton was about to be taken over by the Royal Bank of Canada, he publicly defended, to loud protest from Hamilton politicians, small businessmen, and labour leaders, the right of a local bank to merge into a larger corporate unit. The merger would be “in the public’s interest,” he proclaimed, since strong banks were a “national asset.” Not surprisingly, he would have no qualms about joining the board of the Canadian Bank of Commerce when it absorbed the Bank of Hamilton in 1923. The federal government named him in September 1918 to the board formed to direct the beleaguered Canadian Northern Railway [see Sir William Mackenzie], to which the Canadian Government (later Canadian National) Railways were added in November. It is unlikely that Hobson was dismayed when Andrew Ross McMaster rose in the House of Commons in 1921 to denounce the alleged interlocking directorships held by four members of the Canadian National board: chairman David Blythe Hanna*, Hobson, Thomas Cantley*, and Edward Rogers Wood*.
Well before the war Hobson had emerged as a kind of industrial statesman who carried the concerns of the business community into the political realm. His skills brought him onto the executive council and the tariff and transportation committees of the CMA in 1901, to its Ontario vice-presidency in 1907, and to its national presidency in 1908. A long-time Liberal, he joined other Canadian industrialists in publicly denouncing Sir Wilfrid Laurier*’s reciprocity platform three years later; he served on the executive of the Canadian Home Market Association, the CMA’s front organization for supporting the Conservative election campaign of 1911. Henceforth he gave his allegiance to the Conservatives. As late as 1920 he continued to maintain that the elimination of tariff protection would spell the end of Canada’s steel industry.
Hobson may have reached the pinnacle of his influence locally and nationally during the war. In Hamilton he was a director of the Canadian Patriotic Fund, and, as chair of its finance committee, he used his many connections to raise money to support the dependants of local men in the armed forces. He would remain active on the fund’s local relief committee until 1923. As a close friend of Conservative prime minister Sir Robert Laird Borden* and his finance minister, William Thomas White*, Hobson was not only consulted regularly, he was also recruited for the munition resources commission in 1915 and the new Honorary Advisory Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (later the National Research Council) a year later. In 1919 he was added to the executive of the Canadian Reconstruction Association, the national business organization that attempted to smooth the transition from war to peace and to promote class harmony in the face of popular unrest.
Long an active member of Hamilton’s Central Presbyterian Church, the religious home of many in the local elite, Hobson served on its board of trustees. He had been a freemason since 1888, when he joined the Scottish rite as a member of the Murton Lodge of Perfection, in which he held several offices, including inspector general of the Supreme Council. No prude, he enjoyed the masculine pleasures of his class. He was a director of the Hamilton Jockey Club and, despite an early football injury that left him with a permanent limp, he enjoyed outdoor sports in the Hamilton Golf and Country, Tamahaac, and Caledon Mountain Trout clubs. Exuding bonhomie and a flair for sporty attire, he mixed business and pleasure in the exclusive lounges of his clubs in Hamilton, Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto. Hamilton was shocked when he died suddenly of a brain haemorrhage in February 1926.
Robert Hobson was a new breed of industrialist in the early 20th century. No rags-to-riches entrepreneur, he entered middle management from the middle-class profession of engineering, honed his skills in a large corporation, exercised a leadership role within the Hamilton business community, and reached a level of influence that extended far beyond that steel town. With his acumen as a corporate administrator and his leadership abilities, he was a major player in planting a vital new industry, helping transform the nature of work inside Canadian factories, and generally bringing corporations to a central role in Canadian economic, social, and political life.
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