Charles W. Soderstrom
Golf Accident Ends Career
Charles W. Soderstrom became one of the four founding partners of UPS in 1916, bur a freak golfing accident in 1928 effectively ended his career. His input, mature outlook, diligence, and attention to detail, especially in developing and maintaining the company’s early fleet, are his legacy.
In the years of Merchants Parcel Delivery, Jim Casey explored every avenue he could think of that might lead to infusions of capital. He talked to bankers and others who might be interested in helping with the future development of their business. One possible investor who had an interest in the business was Charlie Soderstrom.
It was thus that the young company received a windfall in 1916, not only in the form of cash, but what came with the cash—a mature, experienced delivery man whose mechanical knowledge and quest for new innovations helped set the tone for the delivery company for years to come. His name was Charles W. Soderstrom and he became the fourth partner.
Born in Sweden
Born in Sweden in 1875, Charlie Soderstrom came to America with his family who settled in the small town of Olean, New York. He had to leave school before graduating from elementary school and went to work in a tannery where he became fascinated with all the machines in the plant.
He also learned how to play the cornet in his spare time and formed a band. Charlie Soderstrom and his Olean Brass Band were soon playing to numerous venues across the northeast. Then in 1898, at age 23, Soderstrom moved to Seattle, Washington, a city that had attracted many Swedes and Norwegians.
His first job in Seattle was as a streetcar motorman, which he shortly left to become a driver of a horse-drawn team owned by an old man named Cady, from which he delivered coal to various businesses and residences.
Instead of Cady getting most of the profits, the tall, gangly Swede bought his own horse-drawn team. He then went into business for himself and began hauling household goods and other miscellaneous trunks and crates. He also delivered furniture for a large furniture company.
This led to a contract for Soderstrom to handle the deliveries for the Stone-Fisher Company, a large dry-goods store (later renamed the Fraser-Paterson Company, one of Seattle’s largest department stores and owned by R.P. Paterson).
Among Soderstrom’s duties was purchasing and maintaining the company’s fleet of Ford delivery vehicles. He also took charge of their deliveries and became known as the best delivery department manager in Seattle. He had a good business sense, understood people, and loved vehicles and mechanized equipment. In fact, even by 1903 Soderstrom had owned an automobile, a second-hand Buick.
He then purchased a Hudson and drove it around for a number of years, the spotless vehicle definitely impressing the partners at Merchants Parcel Delivery when he met with them to discuss business.
Soderstrom later purchased a Stanley Steamer that he drove back and forth from his home in Green Lake, Seattle to Merchants Parcel Delivery. In Los Angeles in the early 1920s he had one of the first two Model A Fords in town. The other belonged to actress Mary Pickford.
Fraser-Paterson started using Merchants Parcel Delivery to augment the store’s delivery service by making out-of-area deliveries and providing special delivery services.
Jim Casey and his partners had great respect for Soderstrom. Jim realized that if they could get Charlie to have a financial interest in their company, they could continue to consult him in delivery and fleet matters.
Soderstrom, meanwhile, was impressed with what Casey was doing and could continue to do, so on July 16, 1916, he bought $10,000 worth of Merchants Parcel Delivery stock, becoming a partner in the process.
At first, Soderstrom stayed in employ at Fraser-Paterson but went to Merchants Parcel Delivery every day to look over its fleet, take notes and offer suggestions. In time, Soderstrom left the Fraser-Paterson delivery department to his assistant Andy Duval and joined Merchants Parcel Delivery full time.
The company that Merchants Parcel Delivery grew into, United Parcel Service, became known through the years as a company with well-maintained, clean attractive vehicles. Much of that image is directly attributable to Charlie Soderstrom. He kept the fleet in tip-top condition and ensured that the vehicles were well maintained. To this day, thanks to practices established by Soderstrom, UPS performs several levels of formal Preventative Maintenance Inspections (PMIs) designed to thwart prospective problems before they occur.
Soderstrom is responsible for the famous UPS Brown as the company’s standard color. With the first Model T Ford painted red, it stood out. However, an advertising man told Jim Casey that yellow was the most conspicuous color, so they painted the second car yellow as they wanted to be conspicuous.
They had different schools of thought when it came to painting the third car, Jim Casey recalled. If they painted it a third color, perhaps the public might think they had a great many more vehicles than they actually had. The other idea was to paint them all the same color to create a standard fleet. After much discussion, Casey remembered, they decided to adopt the conspicuous yellow as the standard color for the fleet.
Soderstrom knew how the department stores would react to the bright yellow fleet and was appalled when he learned of that decision. He explained that the department stores saw their own vehicles as a form of advertising. For the stores to disband their own fleets and turn their parcels over to a company like Merchants Parcel Delivery, they would want the change to be subtle and scarcely noticed. He argued for a much more conservative color. The other partners, once empowered with that new viewpoint, agreed.
Soderstrom, in looking for the proper conservative color, discussed the dilemma with an old carriage painter named Charlie Place. Place told him about the recent experiments run by a railroad sleeper-car company named Pullman. Pullman wanted their rail cars to look as clean as possible even when out on the tracks subject to the elements of rain, snow and dust. Their experiments resulted in Pullman Brown, a distinctive color that blended well with the dirt.
So the first Merchants Parcel Delivery fleet was painted Pullman Brown. During the early years the exact color changed slightly to become the UPS Brown in use today.
In the midst of the heady times following the UPS expansion into Los Angeles in the 1920s, tragedy struck, causing Charles Soderstrom to become the first of the four founders to step out of the leadership picture.
Soderstrom had been a widower in Seattle, who owned his own home and had his parents and sister living with him when he joined Jim Casey and his partners. He even occasionally sent his retired father, who was in his eighties, out on a few special deliveries just to give him something to do. Charlie remarried in Seattle right after the UPS opening in Oakland, and later moved his family to Los Angeles.
The other founders constantly sought advice from Soderstrom, whom they considered their sage. According to Jim Casey, “If we had a problem, we would talk to Charlie about it. Any situation which required the reasoning power, the judgment he possessed, was put on the table in front of him. He could sense whether something should be done or not.
“Though he lacked a formal education as such, he was still our advisor in every sense of the word. We called on Charlie for more or less an outsider’s slant on things…he could so often see what we couldn’t.”
Unfortunately, Charlie’s days as a sounding board were tragically cut short. In late March, 1928, he was golfing at the Fox Hills Country Club in Los Angeles. He was standing in the middle of a fairway when a nearby golfer’s tee shot hit solidly on his skull, right above his ear. While Charlie remained conscious, his playing partner decided to stop right then.
According to Jim Casey, “Mac and I were together when the call came in. I immediately called our doctor, J. Mark Lacey, and he advised us that Charlie should be taken to the Good Samaritan Hospital for X-rays. Mac and I were there when the ambulance drove up. Charlie lay there, his eyes open, a half smile on his face.
“The X-rays were taken and with Dr. Lacey we saw the results—the impact had caved in part of his skull and from that area radial cracks shot out. We were told it could be very serious, and immediately Dr. C.W. Rand, a top brain surgeon, was called in.”
After brief tests it was determined an operation was needed immediately. Jim Casey recalled, “Charlie looked up at me and said ‘I want you right with me, Jim.’ I stayed by his side, all during the operation. I can see it even today.
“That marked the end of the most active part of his career. We thought he was recovering, but he began to get dizzy spells—headaches—although this didn’t keep him from work. He would never make it through a full day—we didn’t want him to—but his advice was still a valuable commodity, and people still came for it.”
Soderstrom had to have a second operation two years later, Casey again at his side. “Once more I stood next to him during the whole thing. Who says a man never cries?”
After the second operation, Soderstrom convalesced at the Desert Hotel in the Mojave Desert near Twentynine Palms, California. He was visited by numerous of his former co-workers, including Mr. and Mrs. Bert Meyer (Sales manager and the first Big Idea editor) and Mr. and Mrs. Bert Barnes (Sales/Big Idea editor) who wrote about their visits in the company publication.
While Charlie Soderstrom did make a couple of later trips to New York, he couldn’t do much. Although a semi-invalid, his consulting was still highly regarded. But a saddened Jim Casey realized he had lost another partner.
Soderstrom, whose ideas and attention to detail became hallmarks at UPS, retired in 1937, and lived in a continually deteriorating mental condition until finally passing away on March 6, 1948 at the age of 83. He was survived by his wife Clare, a daughter, Shirley, and a son, Charles, Jr.
Charles W. Soderstrom Jr. was also an achiever. Owner of a San Pedro, California Ford agency and California delegate to the Republican National Convention, Charles Jr. got his name in a record book for flying a small plane non-stop from Los Angeles to New York.