C.C. CODDINGTON, FIRST TO CORNER A MARKET
It is somewhat ironic that the last nugget from research on my just-published book, True South: Leadership Lessons from Polar Extremes, turned out to be a little-known quote by Tryggve Gran, a member of the British party that found the frozen bodies of Sir Robert Falcon Scott, Dr. Wilson, and Lt. Bowers dead in their tent in Antarctica, 11 miles from supply-laden One Ton Depot on November 12, 1912: “They died having done something great. How hard must not death be having done nothing?”
Really, a quote so unexpected, it jars even on the second reading: “They died—Scott, Wilson, and Bowers—having done something great. How hard must not death be having done nothing?”
It is an appropriate segue for the start of my newest historical biography about Charles Campbell Coddington, who owned the Duke Mansion – the center of our 100th Anniversary being celebrated here today. Polar explorer Gran would agree that C.C. Coddington accomplished many great things of lasting importance. Coddington was the first Buick franchisee in the South. Before his purchase of the Duke Mansion from Buck Duke, the 4th richest man in America, Coddington was the first to corner a market – the most elusive prize of capitalism. This biography captures his entrepreneurial vision and his love story with the acclaimed beauty Marjorie Lyon Coddington of Greensboro, which could, itself, have been straight out of an O. Henry short story. The true Coddington story has never been told – and there were many attempts during his brilliant career. Not only did he corner a market, but he also batted 1,000 when the business start-up success rate is only one out of 12 – even grimmer than baseball stats. (Babe Ruth had the highest batting average in 1924 at .378.) C.C. Coddington’s batting average in business was perfect, earning him a mythical status in the national pantheon of American entrepreneurs. During the Roaring Twenties, Babe Ruth famously said, “It’s hard to beat a person who never gives up.” Though Coddington happened to know Tom Mix, he did not know the Bambino, who could have easily been referring to Coddington.
C.C. Coddington’s funeral services were conducted at 3 p.m. on Tuesday, December 4, 1928 in his mansion in this great South drawing room where we are all seated. Dr. Edgar
Gammon, pastor of the Myers Park Presbyterian Church, presided over the shocked mourners. Coddington was only 50 with three young sons. The boys’ exquisitely beautiful mother had died suddenly three years earlier in 1925. Yet, despite the brevity of their lives as man and wife, they were already established as legends in their day: C.C. Coddington, the wealthiest entrepreneur in the history of Charlotte, and Marjorie, the Queen City’s premier hostess.
Following Coddington’s untimely death, Herbert Cunningham, his inseparable manservant, drove him back – we presume, in a Buick – from his Morehead City estate where a fleet of the finest yachts on the Atlantic coast was kept. An “acute heart block” at 11 p.m. on Sunday, December 2, 1928 was the cause of death while on Zigan, his private yacht, in the Pamlico Sound near Oliver’s Reef.
His death certificate indicated that he was “sick only 45 minutes.” Even with no prior illness and with Rochester medical doctor Dr. A.H. Payne on board, C.C. Coddington was pronounced dead before midnight. After the Tuesday, December 4th, 3 p.m. service in his mansion – yes, seated in this room much as we are today – the mourners later joined a throng assembled for the burial at Elmwood Cemetery near uptown Charlotte. The headlines and pictures trumpeted that the masses of mourners at the cemetery were the “greatest ever assembled at a funeral here.” Over 600 automobiles were parked at parade rest, as though in reverence to their industry leader.
Less than only a week before his untimely death, Coddington was the personal guest of Alfred P. Sloan, a close business friend who appeared on the cover of Time magazine on December 27, 1926, who was also the inventor of modern management memorialized in his classic My Years with General Motors. Seated together for supper in New York were the CEO of General Motors and the President of the National Automobile Dealers Association in the United States and original GM franchise holder in both Carolinas – easily the two greatest minds in the automotive industry at that time.
As would be expected, automobile executives across the country, as well as prominent North Carolinians, including Governor-elect Max Gardner, were among the masses pressing to pay their last respects. C.C. Coddington’s body was moved from the spacious south drawing room, where you sit today in his mansion, to his final resting place in the family mausoleum, interred alongside the love of his life, Marjorie Lyon Coddington.
In Coddington’s obituary, the Charlotte Observer reported that the first Coddington ancestor arrived on The Mayflower. In contrast with his long roots established in this country, Coddington’s career was short; however, in his 25 years as a businessman, the long list of his accomplishments was remarkable: the first Buick franchise in the Carolinas; ownership of WBT radio; the Coddington building at Trade and Graham, a downtown Charlotte landmark; director and founding investor of several technology companies; and ownership of the 5,000-acre stables in Jacksonville, NC, a showplace for the finest horseflesh in the South. His other stables near Morehead City included “Lee’s Lady,” the holder of more prizes than any other horse in the state. As noted, he was also elected – really drafted, since he was America’s most recognized franchisee in the industry – the President of the National Association of Automotive Dealers, and selected to be on the board of the state boxing commission. He was the founding investor of the Charlotte Speedway for $400,000.
The essence of his legacy was a gentlemanly intent to help others individually and through commercial prosperity. It can truthfully be said that he achieved greatness from humble origins, never losing his humility and identity with the working man. Most men require capital; a few great men only need a magnetic personality, persistence, and pluck.
Again, none of the many articles and stories about C.C. Coddington encompassed the full scope of his profound genius; he shattered the record books for picking successful technology startups. Though he suffered great tragedy with the death of his wife and soulmate when she was only 40, and his own death at 50, he hit a home run on every business transaction – and there were many. C.C. Coddington never failed to round the bases; getting only to first base was never on his mind.
In 1907, Coddington traveled to Flint, Michigan, where he negotiated with William C. Durant, the father of General Motors, with the then 3-year-old Buick Company for an exclusive franchise for the entirety of North and South Carolina – with no money, no personal connections, and no car experience. And he had just quit the New York Evening Journal as a cub reporter. Both men executed a historic, exclusive Buick Franchise for the Carolinas. Coddington had the early insight to envision the nascent, extremely high-risk, and untried automotive industry with only goat paths to travel on, would grow to be the largest industry in the world. Who knew this newfangled idea would work as the new century, itself, changed gears? Nobody realized it was about to dominate the world – a new technology at inception more radical than the motherboard or the Global Positioning System.
Being one of the first franchisees – with no money, remember – his business genius surfaced as he made the incredible franchise selection of the Carolinas – far from the smell of the grease paint of his Manhattan home. Without today’s big data to hone decisions, Coddington handpicked Charlotte, NC – then on the cusp of explosive growth to surpass Charleston for the first time. In fact, Charlotte experienced a sustained boom from the 1880s to the end of 1929, with a roar that even exceeded that of the nation in the 1920s. Charlotte was in the forefront of the New South, with industrialization centering around the proliferation of cotton mills as king, rather than cotton in the fields. Charlotte’s population grew 78% in the
1920s to more than 80,000 by the end of the decade, surpassing and eclipsing Charleston into the next century.
As one looks back on his prescient decision to be the first Buick franchisee in the South, Coddington’s skill and vision as an entrepreneur were sealed for a lifetime – even if this had turned out to be a one-trick pony. It was certainly not obvious that this radically new technology would gain traction (granddaddy pun intended). However, the best of his serial business successes was yet to come – all under the entrepreneurial canopy of frequent failures, even when the startup was shepherded by bright people. Coddington’s no-failure manta is more astonishing than his successful line drives out of the park.
In 1925, he purchased WBT in the emerging radio broadcasting industry. With his new technology toy, he increased the wattage fivefold and coined the call letters: Watch Buick Travel. WBT was then moved from Briar Creek to his new, five-story Coddington Building in bustling downtown Charlotte, which was the largest building devoted to the merchandising and serving of a single product in the South. He understood synergism before the business term was coined.
As one of the founding organizers of the Charlotte Speedway near Pineville in 1924, Coddington ratcheted up synergism another full notch.
Even his purchase and inventory of yachts at his Pamlico Sound retreat and 5,000-acre estate for show horses proved to be a shrewd investment, albeit low tech.
His extraordinary people skills displayed when he personally selected the franchise managers for all 67 Buick dealerships in North and South Carolina. His hands-on involvement as a director and cash investor into both McClaren Rubber Company and Ajax Rubber Company combined with his technology insight and understanding that skilled managers build winning enterprises. Coddington invested hard cash into Ajax when it was unable to meet company payroll. We all know the beta factor is never higher than the ‘we-cannot-make-payroll’ moment. Both rubber companies survived and, indeed, prospered. His relationships with H.L. McClaren and Lee Folger were testimonials to his passionate business loyalties, rare in those days; rare still today. No doubt, he understood the benefits of new technology, people instincts, and guts to step into this freefall to bankruptcy and save the day. This vignette, alone, tells you about Coddington, the man: fearless to the point of demise.
It would be easy to overlook Coddington’s abilities in real estate, especially his understanding of the value added by selecting the right architects for each particular project. Coddington personally selected architects Albert Kahn of Detroit for his five-story Coddington building and William H. Peeps, formerly of London, for the 9,200-square-foot Coddington home on East Morehead. Built for the newlyweds, Marjorie and himself, the home was a perfectmatch for upscale Dilworth, the first Charlotte suburb before the coinage of the word. The new home was built in honor of Marjorie, and was inspired by the H-pattern of the Eliot Farm house owned by her forbearers in Carlisle, PA.
As his capstone, C.C. Coddington’s defining moment of his brilliant career coalesced in the throes of World War I. He concluded that the first global war was about end. Moreover, there would be a surge in demand for cars by doughboys returning from the trenches of France, then followed by a civilian ripple. C.C. Coddington purchased a locomotive and 60 train cars outright to ensure significant inventory and means to transport Buicks to Charlotte. To appreciate the magnitude of his decision, a GE heavy-haul locomotive would cost the equivalent of $2.5 million in today’s dollars, without adding the monumental cost of 60 individual train cars, personnel, inventory cost, legal expenses, and fuel.
The trainloads of Buicks would be inventoried in Charlotte until the cows came home – in rural pastures. During World War I, cars came in any color you could possibly want – provided it was black. Against the backdrop of Carolina pale broom straw in the cow pastures, you had thousands of dark metal locusts carefully lined in military formation. The canvas constantly changed as the wind moved the grey clouds, momentarily blotting out the brightness of the sun. And that picture turned eerily monochromatic during the rare snow of winter.
When the guns of August went silent on November 11, 1918, a potential Buick buyer in Dubuque, who wanted immediate delivery, needed Coddington’s phone number. The good news for the Iowan: no area code was needed. There have been attempts to corner markets, including Jay Gould’s failure to corner gold in 1869; Bunker Hunt’s attempt to corner the silver market in 1979 (both brothers went bankrupt); and Yasuo Hamanaka’s attempt to corner the copper market in 1990 (he lost $2.6 billion and went to prison).C.C. Coddington had guts, gusto, and genius to stage this coup d’état. His instincts were, again, on the mark. He had cornered the Buick market, yielding massive returns. This incredible transaction was perfectly legal. He would have it no other way. Furthermore, his cornering of the market remains a feat so elusive that it has to be acknowledged as the entrepreneurial crown for modern business: the ultimate tour de force.
Accordingly, we can all say with great pride, that even though C.C. Coddington died before the pinnacle of his brilliant career, he owned this incredible Duke Mansion, filled these halls, and walked these magnificent grounds with massive fountains, radiating an entrepreneurial spirit the likes of which is rarely seen.
Business captains like Coddington are being discarded as useless old gentlemen. You and I have an obligation to not let these titans of capitalism slip into the forgotten past.
In the interest of brevity today, I have made no mention about the chapters concerning Marjorie Lyon and Coddy’s incredible love affair that gives love at first sight an entirely new meaning. I have left out additional chapters of the triumph of an entrepreneur amassing his own wealth compared with inherited wealth: WBT radio as an emerging technology; the Roaring Twenties coming to Charlotte ahead of the nation; our greatest conservative, President Calvin Coolidge, during this era; race and the heinous Red Shirts stripping blacks of voting rights in the South; abject poverty in Charlotte and the South during Reconstruction; the mind of the South as W.J. Cash described in his classic; a description of the 1 ¼-mile banked oval Speedway in Pineville made of green pine and cypress, along with events of race day entertainment planting seeds for NASCAR; why Coddington would have prospered in the Depression with the preeminence of radio if he had lived.
A chapter to celebrate Coddinton’s endearing fatherhood of his outstanding sons and their lives will be titled “Father’s Day.” It will reference that Coddington did not have to live through a second family member’s tragic death; his beloved first son, C.C. Coddington, Jr., entering Woodbury Forest died as a result of a dive into shallow water at his family’s estate on the North Carolina coast.
A full chapter will be devoted to the friendship between car industrial giants Coddington and Alfred P. Sloan – expected to be the centerpiece of the book; a subsequent chapter will detail Durant, the father of GM, his relationship with Coddington, and how Coddington outflanked Durant in the Exclusive Buick Franchise Agreement for the Carolinas (67 Exclusive Franchises to be exact).
Even though Alfred P. Sloan had a personal demeanor of steel, not unlike the millions of cars he flooded into the marketplace, and Billy Durant was indifferent to the working man, it is my intention to emphasize throughout this book the big heart and genuine humility of Charles Campbell Coddington. Considering his major accomplishments, this will require effort. There is a human slant that makes material accomplishments almost incongruous with virtue even unto the final moment of dirt thumping the casket lid.
BY PHIL JOHNSTON, J.D.