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Graybar’s Origin Story: A Conversation with Carrie Johnson

March 17, 2020 • History Factory

On the latest episode of History Factory Plugged In, host Jason Dressel sat down with Carrie Johnson, Director of Strategic Communications at Graybar, and a presenter at this year’s Anniversary Marketing Summit, to hear about the company’s origin story. Here’s an excerpt from their conversation.

Jason: Graybar is a Fortune 500 company. Obviously, the company has persevered and adapted to have a 150-year history, but it may be a relatively unknown name to those outside your industry. So tell us a little bit about who Graybar is.

Carrie: In the simplest terms, Graybar distributes the products and services that our customers need to build, to maintain and to renovate their facilities. So that can be anything from a simple project, like renovating your neighborhood school or updating the lighting there, all the way up to something as big as building a state-of-the-art NFL stadium.

We serve a wide range of customers working behind the scenes to help them get each job done on time and on budget.

We have 289 locations across the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico, and nearly 9,000 employees. Our corporate headquarters is in St. Louis, Missouri.

Jason: So what’s Graybar’s origin story?

Carrie: Our story starts in Cleveland in 1868. Western Union had a manufacturing shop in Cleveland, which they closed and sold to the superintendent of the shop, a man named George Shawk. He found a business partner in a young ambitious man named Enos Barton. Barton and Shawk opened for business in January 1869, as a small manufacturing firm of telegraph equipment.

Shawk quickly grew tired of the business, and just a few months into their new venture, he sold his part of the business to Elisha Gray. Gray was the firm’s best customer at the time. He was a professor at Oberlin College and a prolific inventor. In fact, Gray, during his life, is credited with more than 70 patents. So Gray bought into the business, and in the fall of 1869, the company was formally established under the name Gray and Barton. In December 1869, Gray and Barton opened its doors in Chicago. Eventually, Western Union purchased an interest in the company, and the name of the company was changed to Western Electric Manufacturing Company in 1872, still based in Chicago.

Western Electric became one of the world’s largest manufacturers of telephone equipment and electrical products. As electricity and telephony continued to spread across the United States, Western Electric saw an opportunity to distribute products manufactured by other companies.

So, they set up part of the company called the Supply Department, where they could basically create a one-stop shop for anything electrical that their customers needed. The Supply Department became very successful, and it was spun off as a separate entity named Graybar Electric Company Inc. in 1925. And the name Graybar was chosen in honor of the two cofounders, Elisha Gray and Enos Barton.

Jason: If you had one story to tell in a bar about Graybar history, what would it be?

Carrie: One of our favorite stories, and it’s probably one of the better-known stories of anyone who has heard of Elisha Gray, is about the battle for the telephone patent. As you know, Alexander Graham Bell is commonly known as the inventor of the telephone, but there’s a lot of evidence that Graybar co-founder Elisha Gray should have received credit for that.

As the story goes, it was Valentine’s Day of 1876. Bell and Gray each submitted an application to the U.S. Patent Office for a device that we would recognize as a telephone—something to transmit the human voice over a wire. And less than a month later, after reviewing their competing applications, the Patent Office awarded the patent to Bell, saying that his papers had arrived before Gray’s.

Gray sued. He claimed that Bell stole the idea and took his case all the way to the Supreme Court. But unfortunately, he lost, and Bell obtained what may have been the most valuable patent in history, along with the recognition as the inventor of the telephone.

Gray had a lot of supporters who disputed the court’s decision. Many insisted that his application was delivered to the Patent Office first but remained near the bottom of the in-basket until the afternoon. And they claimed that Bell’s application actually came in later but his patent lawyer requested that it be entered immediately.

Jason: As part of Graybar’s 150th anniversary, were there any stories that you had not heard before that were new to you and particularly impactful?

Carrie: Absolutely. One of the coolest discoveries of our 150th anniversary celebration was going back and reading some of Elisha Gray’s writings. We had known about the existence of a series of books that he wrote near the end of his life. It was a series called Nature’s Miracles. There were three volumes, and to those of us today who like to read more modern literature, it would have been a tough read.

As part of planning 150th anniversary celebration, through the process we uncovered a little gem in one of these books. The very last chapter of his last book was titled “The New Era.” And this is a very short chapter; it was only about three pages long. But in this chapter, called “The New Era,” Gray pointed to some themes that are very, very relevant nearly 120 years after he wrote it. And while the language feels like it’s 120 years old, the points he made are absolutely relevant today.

We were really inspired by the title of the chapter, “The New Era,” and the message that was in it. And so the theme for our anniversary became “Powering the New Era.” And it’s a perfect way to fuel excitement for our future, while anchoring on our heritage and what’s made us successful for so long.

Jason: That’s a great segue to the future. What are some of the key things continuing the journey forward?

Carrie: We’re exploring a lot of other technologies, like artificial intelligence and blockchain and all of those platforms that really show a lot of promise for the future.

It’s about inspiring innovation and equipping people with the tools they need to deliver that exceptional customer experience today and in the future. And I think the key thing, too, is a lot of things are changing, and we must continue to change and adapt, but we believe it’s really important not to compromise our values or what we stand for as an organization. There’s a reason why we’ve been successful for 150 years. And that same spirit of innovation and service and ownership is what we want to build on for the future.

So, the future is looking bright. We’re excited about what’s happening in our industry. And I’m really glad that we could use our 150th anniversary celebration to set the stage and power the new era for Graybar and for our industry.

The Anniversary Marketing Summit will be held on October 6 in Chicago. Register today to secure your place.

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