Humble boss often taken for a janitor
Carl Elsener III: Born: July 6th, 1922 Died: June 1st, 2013
Carl Elsener who died recently the creator of the Victorinox Swiss Army Knife.
The company began as a small cutlery works founded by Elsener’s grandfather in the Swiss village of Ibach in 1884.
The Swiss army decided to abandoned its German-made soldier’s pocket knife for a homemade product: it needed a blade, a tin opener and tools for stripping and reassembling the rifle that every trained soldier was made to keep at home.
The firm fulfilled the brief and then created a second, lighter version of the knife, designed for officers, adding a corkscrew to the basic tools. It was this model, with its bright red handle and Swiss flag cross, that was the foundation of the company’s rise.
The firm’s name, Victorinox, was derived from Victoria, the founder’s wife, and the French abbreviation of inoxydable (stainless steel).
After the second World War sales, boosted by American soldiers serving in Europe, really took off. The GIs coined the term Swiss army knife and bought them by the thousand. Civilians round the world soon followed suit and the knife became a favourite with travellers, DIY fans and schoolboys.
Elsener joined the family firm at 17 and succeeded his father as chief executive at the age of 27. From then on the versatile knives, hitherto made individually by hand, were mass-produced without a noticeable decline in quality.
Under him the number of tools available in many versions of the knife grew exponentially. To the basic items were variously added a saw, a toothpick, tweezers, a magnifying glass, scissors, pliers, spoon, fork, compass, USB memory stick, digital clock and even an MP3 player.
Considerable folklore grew up around the implements, with tales of how they were carried by famous explorers, including Everest climbers and American astronauts. Macabre stories did the rounds of emergency self-amputations and life-saving tracheotomies.
Elsener, a committed Christian, never made a worker redundant, even after taking over a rival. He would often be mistaken for a janitor when he opened the door to visitors in his overalls. The top salaries at the company never exceeded five times the wage of the lowest-paid full-time worker.
He went to work daily on his bicycle almost to the end, having handed over control of the family firm in 2007 to Carl Elsener IV, the oldest of his 11 surviving children. His wife, Rosemarie, predeceased him.