Thursday, August 1, 2013

Wickman Opened a Hupmobile Dealership

In 1914, a laid-off miner named Carl Wickman opened a Hupmobile dealership in Hibbing, Minn.

When he couldn't make a sale in the Iron Range village, he turned the seven-seat Hup into a bus, ferrying his former workmates between the mines and their homes.
From this humble start, Wickman created Greyhound Corp., the iconic bus firm that opened up America's highways to the masses.

Wickman moved from Sweden to Arizona to Minnesota, where his bus firm became king of the road. Greyhound
Wickman moved from Sweden to Arizona to Minnesota, where his bus firm became king of the road. 
A Swedish immigrant with an eye for profit, Wickman (1887-1954) battled terrible roads, blizzards and mechanical breakdowns in the early years. During the Great Depression he nearly went bankrupt.
But over the long haul, Wickman steered his company toward fame and profit, parlaying a two-mile route into one of the leading bus transport services in the country.
"He was a jovial man,'' Carlton Jackson, author of "Hounds of the Road: A History of the Greyhound Bus Company," told IBD. "But he was determined. Minnesota was a rough place to start anything that had to do with transportation. He had to overcome a lot of obstacles."


Wickman was born in a village near Mora, Sweden. At the urging of a friend, he left the Scandinavian country in 1905 to travel to Arizona. Just a teen, he used all his money for a train ticket from New York to Tucson, only to find that his friend had left town.

Wickman's Keys

  • The Swedish immigrant started a bus firm in Hibbing, Minn., in 1914 and made it Greyhound Corp., the transportation giant.
  • Overcame: Freezing weather, terrible roads, the Great Depression.
  • Lesson: Drive and hard work never go out of style.
  • "He had the guts to take chances," said Gene Nicolelli, director of the Greyhound Bus Museum in Hibbing.
Although he was broke, couldn't speak English and didn't know a soul, he managed to get a job at a sawmill.
"However, the Arizona sun was a little different from the Swedish sun," Jackson said. "Meanwhile, he heard from a few of his friends who had gone directly to Minnesota that the climate up there was more like Sweden."

After saving enough money for the train fare, Wickman headed north to Hibbing, a rugged mining town with a pioneer flavor.
After working in the mines for years as a diamond-drill operator, he was laid off in 1913.

He was 26 and refused to sit still. He bought the Hupmobile dealership — and when he couldn't sell the seven-seat car, the precursor to the SUV, he began shuttling miners to work and back.
The bus was an immediate hit, with miners squeezing in any way they could. They sat on each other, stood on the running boards and clung to the back bumpers.

Wickman charged 15 cents for a one-way trip and a quarter — worth $6 now — for the round trip. With gasoline selling for 4 cents a gallon, he made money.

That was the upside.

The downside? The conditions.

His early drivers battled unpaved roads and Minnesota's freeze to deliver their passengers on time. Flapping curtains did little to keep out the snow. Blizzards made driving perilous, and a flat tire could result in miserable delay. "In one instance the snow was so deep that four men got out and walked," Jackson said. "They said it was quicker.

Greyhound rolled in the 1920s, becoming the transportation of choice for vacationers, salesmen, even jazz bands.

Greyhound rolled in the1920s, becoming the transportation of choice for vacationers, salesmen, even jazz bands.  

"It was something like the Wild West. In the beginning it was called the Snoose Line. Snoose in Swedish means snuff. The person who wanted a ride would take out his snuffbox and show it to the driver as he approached, and the driver would know the man on the street wanted a ride. Of course it was a little precarious to stay in the line of fire 'cause there were a lot of people spitting, and if you weren't careful you'd get a face full of snuff."

After that first winter, Wickman had enough of the drudgery. So he sold his interest in the company.
But when the firm's men asked him back, offering to reduce his driving duties, he jumped back in.
In 1915, their first full year, Wickman and his remaining partner, Andy Anderson, started 15-mile runs to Nashwauk, Minn., creating the country's first regular intercity bus route.
Their operation was on a roll. Demand was so high, they added cars. When those vehicles weren't enough, Wickman and Anderson stretched each car — cutting the frame in half, welding new pieces to the body, adding seats to accommodate 12 miners.

Wickman bought out competitors — and in 1916 formed Mesaba Transportation Co.
Two years later the company had 18 cars and an annual income of $40,000, or $600,000 today.
Wickman now lengthened his aim: to carry passengers anywhere in the country on one ticket.
At the end of World War I in November 1918 he sold his share of the business for $60,000 (worth $900,000 today), moved to Duluth, Minn., and started gobbling up his one-car competitors.
He made a crucial move in 1925, buying a small line operating out of Superior, Wis., that was owned by Orville Caesar.
Within a year the duo formed Motor Transit Corp., the holding company that became Greyhound.

At about that time, according to company legend, a driver was passing through a northern Wisconsin town when he saw the reflection of his bus in a store window.
"He said the bus looked like a greyhound," Jackson said.
The name caught on, and Wickman adapted the slogan "Ride the Greyhounds."

The company formally changed its name to Greyhound Corp. in 1930.

Shifting Gears
Wickman was coasting. He'd married Olga Rodin, a Swedish American, and they had two children.
But trouble was coming. After the stock market crash of 1929, Greyhound nearly went under. By 1931, his firm was over $1 million in debt.

Wickman wasted little time steering his company straight.
First, he gained exclusive rights to provide transportation at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair.

Second, his firm was featured in the 1934 movie "It Happened One Night," starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. The comedy about a spoiled heiress running away from her family who shares a Greyhound seat with a newspaperman won five Academy Awards.
In a savvy PR move, Wickman's team parked Greyhound buses in front of theaters.

Soon thousands of people all over the country were hopping on Greyhounds in search of similar adventures, Jackson says.
"People got vicarious experiences by seeing the movie," he said. "Greyhound was one of the few transportation companies in the mid-'30s that didn't go under."

By 1934, Greyhound had pulled a U-turn, with profit reaching $3.2 million (worth $54 million now), almost double the previous year.
In 1935, the net intake was $4.7 million (or $79 million now), and for the first time in history more people rode buses than trains.
In 1946 Wickman tapped on the brake, retiring as president to become chairman of the board. During a visit to Sweden, he was knighted by King Gustav V "for serving the unserved." Said Jackson: "That was Greyhound's motto at the time. Wickman went home as sort of a conquering hero."

By the time Wickman died at age 66, the transportation world that he helped create was changing. Cars were cutting into bus travel, cheap air travel was on the rise, and soon Greyhound had to diversify into nonbus activity with food and insurance companies.
A Dallas-based investment group led by Fred Currey bought the struggling bus company in 1987 and renamed it Greyhound Lines.
Four years later the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
Today Greyhound is owned by FirstGroup (FGROY), a leading transport operator in the United Kingdom and North America.

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