PIQUA — The owner and former CEO of Hartzell Propeller and a beloved member of the aviation community passed away recently, leaving behind a company of employees and a community of people who remember James “Jim” W. Brown Jr. with fondness and admiration.
Brown passed away on Nov. 20, at the age of 84.
“He was one of my heroes,” Rich Hess, master machinist of Hartzell Propeller, said.
Brown was a husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, avid pilot, successful businessman, and all-weather, carrier night-landing, qualified fighter pilot.
Brown was born on Feb. 11, 1933, in New Jersey. He graduated from Shaker Heights High School, attended Princeton University, and graduated from M.I.T., a transfer done so he could marry his high school sweetheart, Constance Wright, who was his wife for nearly 65 years.
Brown transferred the business over to his sons, Jim Brown III, and Joe Brown, in 1999, but remained active in the business until 2012, as well as attending the Hartzell air shows in recent years. Jim Brown III, is the president of Tailwind Technologies, Hartzell’s parent company, and also has a vice president role at Hartzell. Joe Brown is the president of Hartzell.
“He was known and loved here,” Hess said.
Hess remembered how Brown treated everyone equally, regularly engaging with all of the Hartzell employees and showing that he cared about them.
“He would come out on a regular basis and talk to the employees,” Hess said, noting how his interactions with Brown felt sincere. “He commanded respect.”
“He cared about the people, and it always came through,” Gary Chafin, vice president of Global Sales and Product Support, said. Chafin added that his wife credits Brown for their marriage, saying, “She says that the reason we’re married is because of Jim. Every time he saw me or he saw her, he said, ‘When are you two getting married?’”
Hess remembered how well Brown treated his wife, Connie, and how they would come together to company events like Farm Day, where he played with and encouraged the children.
A leader in business
Brown purchased Hartzell Propeller in 1987.
“I’ve been with the company for 38 years. I’ve been through two, three ownership changes … and I think that Jim’s purchase of Hartzell Propeller, it was probably a salvation, actually, for this company,” Dean Ward, director of Product Support, said.
Ward described working partial weeks in the early 1980s at Hartzell, calling it a “tough time.”
“I think Jim’s vision for what could be, along with his passion for aviation, commitment to community, and an uncanny, in my opinion, ability to recognize and develop talent, I think were the tools that he used to raise us up from some pretty low areas at one point,” Ward said. “I think that if it had not been for Jim’s interest and faith in the company at that time, we probably would not have lasted to see our 100-year anniversary.”
Hess later added, “He brought us to a world-class company.”
“He always said it was his job to be the poet and the cheerleader,” Chafin said. “He was this driving force behind the company, but it was always humble. He always asked about you and your family before talking about work.”
Brown had faith in his employees, and it showed.
“He always told us we were a great workforce over and over. We believed him, and it was inspirational,” Hess said, later adding, “He had faith and confidence in his people.”
“He had a lot of sayings. One of them was, ‘Hire talented people, and get out of their way,’” Brown’s son Jim said.
Employees at Hartzell admired the culture that Brown created.
“I always told him that I felt he built a company that had Fortune 500 capabilities, but with private company sensibilities,” Matt Jesch, CFO, said. He added, “He was very deliberate in constructing a culture.”
That culture was built on capable employees — making the environment a good place to work — and family values, Jesch said.
One of the first actions they remembered Brown taking at Hartzell was getting rid of time clocks. Jim said that the idea was that they were trusting employees to make flight critical equipment, so they could trust their employees on when they went to lunch. They also do not have assigned parking spots.
“He believed that regardless of the job you have, you matter,” Jim said.
Brown led by example, and going forward, employees hope to follow in Brown’s footsteps.
“You want to succeed even though he’s not with us anymore … I would like to live up to that standard,” Hess said. “We’re better people for knowing him.”
Brown was also revered for his tenacity and his commitment to following his passions by building up the company.
“I admired his risk-taking. He bought the company when he was 54 and kind of put it all on the the line,” Jesch said. “He was an M.I.T.-educated engineer, highly educated, and highly employable. I think he could have gone and run other companies. Instead he bought this company, moved to Piqua, and put it all in. He was all in on this company and his people.”
Later, Jim added, “Another one his sayings was, ‘Figure out what you’re deeply passionate about, and figure out how to get paid to do it.’ It took him a while, but at age 54 when he bought this place, it was a marriage of his passion for aviation and his business acumen coming together in an environment where he cherished the people and working relationships he had.”
Jim went on, saying, “A lot of people, the last chapters of their life may not be the most fulfilling, and for my dad, the 25 years that he was active here at Hartzell were the years that I think he cherished most. I think he thrived as a person in this environment. He was joyful everyday to have a chance to come in here.”
Making an impression
“I think every company wants to say, ‘We’re involved in the community, and we’re making a difference,’” Craig Barhorst, manufacturing manager, said.
For Brown and Hartzell, though, it was about “walking the walk.” Barhorst cited involvement with Positively Promoting Piqua, the Piqua Public Library, and United Way, in addition to attending Farm Day, volleyball tournaments, and more.
“He was instrumental in … getting a group of us to build a shelter house at Mote Park,” Barhorst said.
Brown was also involved in the aviation community, getting to know pilots and other members of the propeller and aviation industry.
“He’s had an influence on people every place he’s gone,” Ward said. Chafin added to that, saying, “Anywhere he’s gone, has made an impact.”
“He flew in the Navy. He was deeply passionate about flying and the pilots … He cared about the industry as well,” Jesch said. “It was more than a job and business, it was a love and understanding of an industry as well.”
Heidi Hennessy, director of Human Resources, recalled how pilots who participated in Hartzell’s air show shared messages about what Brown meant to them.
”His relationship with the pilots is the reason we’re able to have an air show, I think,” Hennessy said. “He touched their lives in such an important way.”
Brown is survived by his wife, Constance W. Brown; his children and in-laws: Judith and Rick Bryan, Ginger and Stuart Van Wagenen, Kate Brown and Michael Halberstam, Peggy and Michael Crosby, Jannie and Jim Brown III, and Kristen and Joe Brown; his grandchildren and in-laws; and his great-grandchildren.
A memorial service to celebrate his life will be held on Dec. 16, at 4 p.m. at the Hunting Valley Campus of University School, 2785 SOM Center Road, Hunting Valley, OH 44022.
In lieu of flowers, the family would welcome donations to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, 4550 MontgomeryAve., Suite 1100 N, Bethesda, MD 20814 or online at: www.cff.org.
Reach Sam Wildow at email@example.com or (937) 451-3336