Henry M. Rowan

Henry M. Rowan

Above: Henry and Betty Rowan on campus after announcing their $100 million gift on July 6, 1992, with Chancellor of Higher Education Edward Goldberg, President Herman James and Governor James Florio.

Henry M. Rowan: an extraordinary life

(Dec. 4, 1923 - Dec. 9, 2015)

He dreamed as only an entrepreneur can. He revolutionized an industry as only a person with drive and determination can. And he changed higher education as only someone with a generous spirit and a great vision can.

He was Henry M. Rowan, entrepreneur, businessman and major benefactor of Rowan University. Mr. Rowan, the man behind the 1992 $100 million gift that helped transform Glassboro State College into the nationally recognized Rowan University, passed away on Dec. 9, 2015.

He was an entrepreneur who developed an international business from a modest first initiative in his own suburban backyard. And he was the man whose generosity served as the catalyst to propel this institution to become what it is today, a competitive University with the outstanding Henry M. Rowan College of Engineering that his gift made possible, exceptional programs on four campuses, two medical schools, Carnegie doctoral research institution status, a technology park and a strong reputation that continues to grow. Although his initial goal was to revitalize engineering education, his gift will impact generations of Rowan University students in all fields as well as the region and beyond.

Born to be an entrepreneur

At the age of nine, Henry Rowan started his first business—raising chickens and selling eggs with his mother as his only customer. Not wanting to spoil her son, she wouldn’t pay more than the top wholesale price for the eggs, so young Rowan’s first business was in trouble. Retail chicken feed costs and wholesale prices don’t spell survival, let alone profit.

“I’ve enjoyed driving myself in everything I’ve ever done.” - Henry M. Rowan

He needed to buy the feed in bulk, so for his 10th birthday, instead of asking for a bicycle or a train set, he asked for a 100-pound bag of feed. “I worked awfully hard at my egg business. It was just something inside me,” Rowan once stated. “I’ve enjoyed driving myself in everything I’ve ever done.”

Having a strong role model

The founder, president and CEO of Inductotherm Industries Inc. and the University's major benefactor, Rowan was the third of four children born to Dr. Henry M. Rowan Sr. and Margaret Frances Boyd Rowan in 1923. In 1929, two events dramatically altered Rowan’s life: the family fortune was lost in the stock market crash, and his parents divorced. He would not see his father again until he was an adult.

Rowan’s mother took on the dual role of mother and father, Rowan recalled in his 1995 autobiography, The Fire Within. Learning from her family history, his mother “preached a doctrine of thrift and self-reliance which I readily absorbed,” Rowan wrote. A Wellesley College graduate, Mrs. Rowan continued her education, earning a master’s degree in botany and zoology to better support the family. She was her son’s first lender, customer and perhaps his best teacher. Mrs. Rowan ensured that her children—two daughters and two sons—read the classics, attended concerts and visited museums. She also wanted them to see the world. On one occasion, she took Rowan and his younger brother Bill out of school for a month-long trip to Peru. Instead of a luxury liner, they traveled on a banana boat, learning how the engines worked and how the seamen lived. In Peru, they explored ruins, scaled the Andes and became immersed in another culture.

“How could we ever have experienced so much in a classroom?” Rowan wrote. With his mother’s influence, he believed he was blessed (or cursed) with an inner drive that has no off switch, ultimately leading him to form Inductotherm Industries Inc. of Rancocas, Burlington County. Rowan helped drive the company to world leadership in the manufacture of induction melting furnaces and run companies that make other related and unrelated products that bring in annual sales of the hundreds of millions. Rowan thrived on challenge.

A responsibility to family and country

In 1941, Rowan enrolled in a dual degree program to earn a bachelor of arts from Williams College in Massachusetts and a master of science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. However, the program was interrupted by World War II. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps as an aviation cadet and trained to be a bomber pilot. Shortly after qualifying to fly the B- 17 bomber, news came that the war was over. While grateful to see the war end, Rowan wrote, “I felt cheated out of what I saw as the ultimate challenge—combat flying.” While in flight school, Rowan married Betty Long, his childhood sweetheart from Ridgewood, N.J.

The beginning of Inductotherm

When the couple returned home after the war, they immediately packed up and moved to Massachusetts. Rowan returned to MIT to complete his undergraduate degree with honors in electrical engineering, while supporting his wife and two young children, Jimmy and Virginia. Rowan’s life of meeting challenges head-on kicked into high gear. He took many risks—financial and emotional— to start up Inductotherm with his partner Paul Foley. In 1954, he sold the family home, moved to a rented house and used the equity as his starting capital. Rowan and his wife built their first furnace in their cellar, heating the copper over a bonfire in their backyard. Even with the business growing, Foley, an entrepreneur in his own right with another business of his own, couldn’t stand the pace or the pressure Rowan set, and asked to be bought out. Rowan was left to fly solo and invested a tremendous amount of time, energy, and profits back into the business. 

As a result of tremendous zeal stemming from unprecedented entrepreneurial spirit and personal family tragedy, Inductotherm Industries Inc. had grown to include 80 subsidiaries throughout North America, South America, Europe, India, Asia and Australia. The company has achieved tremendous success due to Rowan’s persistence, perfectionism and commitment to customer service. 

Personal reflections and new challenges

Rowan’s feelings about wealth and waste have a lot to do with his upbringing during the Great Depression. He considered waste to be almost sinful. He enjoyed finding good buys when shopping for food or clothing, and purchased his suits off the rack. “It takes so long to be measured and have a suit made. Why would I want to waste time doing that?” he once asked.

Rowan has never been interested in hobnobbing with society’s elite. “I spend time with people because I like them,” he said. “Being wealthier than the next guy may be important to some, but it means little to me. I enjoy doing what I want to do.” Rowan’s thriftiness extends to transportation, though it appears to be totally inconsistent—he drives a 1990 Buick and flew a Lear jet. But the jet is not an extravagance. “The Lear is a business tool, a real profit earner,” he indicated when once asked about it. “Almost weekly, we bring customers into the plant or take them to see a furnace installation in a distant city. It increases our ability to reach our customers, service our customers and sell furnaces.”

The challenge of competition is what has held Rowan’s interest in sailboat racing, a passion he continued to pursue into his 70's. Racing the Star Boat, which is a one-design sailing class, is a hobby he enjoyed tremendously. Rowan even competed in the 1992 Olympic trials in Miami. “I didn’t go into it thinking I would win. I did it for the great competition,” he said. “Sailboat racing provides a test of your ability to instantaneously react to the thousands of subtle changes in the wind. You strive for perfection but never reach it. “Business is like that,” Rowan said. “Changes in markets, in pricing, technology and competition require immediate reactions if the business is to flourish.”

Rowan had operated his business and lived his life with that same intensity and drive to be the best. And while he was proud of the gift he made to the college, he said the donation is dwarfed by the contribution his business has made to the communities in which the companies operate. “We’ve been averaging $200 million a year in sales in New Jersey. Over the years, we’ve probably paid out $3 billion in salaries and expenditures locally. That’s worth far more to South Jersey than $100 million to the college,” he said.

Growing the economy was part of Rowan’s business philosophy. “The responsibility of anyone running a successful business is to generate jobs and wealth in the community so there are opportunities for people to work and perform,” Rowan said. “You’re creating wealth on which the community exists. We have 5,000 employees worldwide and I’m proud of that. Five thousand families are working and contributing to their economies because of the business we generate,”.

As the years have passed, many great people have joined the Inductotherm group, running the individual companies and, as Rowan once put it, “making the fun decisions and meeting new challenges.” Gradually, Rowan's role became more of a consulting one with the CEOs of his other companies, discussing new technologies, efficiency in manufacturing and expansion opportunities.

Friends had once asked Rowan if he thought of retiring so he could dedicate his full energies to his passions, like sailing and flying. “I dreaded the thought of retiring,” Rowan indicated in his book. “I couldn’t bear the thought of getting up in the morning with no new objectives to reach, no work to be done, nothing to inspire me for the rest of the day.”