April 14, 1922 - Oct. 11, 2013
Robert J. Fierle, who scrounged enough money from friends to buy some equipment from a bankrupt machine shop and built it into American Precision Industries – a Cheektowaga company that had more than $120 million in sales when he retired – died Thursday in Hospice Buffalo. He was 91.
“Dad was one of the last of the manufacturing icons who grew up here and created his success here,” said his daughter, Gretchen Fierle.
Mr. Fierle, a Buffalo native, started working as an engineer at Westinghouse after serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II.
But he chafed at the restraints he worked under at Westinghouse, and spotted an ad from a bankrupt machine shop that was trying to sell some equipment.
Lacking the money to buy the gear, he wrote to friends from the Navy and Northwestern University asking them to invest in his new business venture. Seventeen of them agreed.
“He thought that being an entrepreneur was like being an artist,” said his son, William Fierle. “He felt that starting your own business was like having a blank canvas to work on.”
But his venture started slowly, generating just $23,000 in sales the first year and turning a profit of just $67. The next year, Amherst Tool & Manufacturing Corp. made $300, but it lost $4,000 in its third year.
But Mr. Fierle persisted, working long hours along the way – he once estimated that he was paid less than a dime an hour then.
“One of the things he gave us as a kid was a great work ethic,” said William Fierle, who grew up on the family’s rural property in East Aurora.
“One of the greatest things that will teach you a work ethic is to have to get up at 5 in the morning to take care of the steer.”
Gradually, the company expanded its operations, winning important Navy contracts to make things such as coils and dust plugs for bombs.
In 1961, the company went public, selling stock to raise additional money for the business, and in 1989, it hit $50 million in sales.
He stepped down as the company’s president and chief executive officer in 1992, but remained as the company’s chairman until his retirement in 1997.
By then, the company had grown to $120 million in sales with more than 2,000 employees. American Precision Industries was acquired by Danaher Corp. in 2000.
Mr. Fierle, who also had a home in Jupiter, Fla., was an active member of the local business community. He helped found the Business Council of New York State when, at a time when he was chairman of the Empire State Chamber of Commerce, he arranged a meeting with the state’s Manufacturers Association that led to the merger of the two groups.
He was named executive of the year by the Buffalo/Niagara Sales and Marketing Executives Association in 1979 and Businessman of the Year by the Canisius College School of Business Administration in 1980.
He also was involved in numerous charitable causes, including the Robert J. and Martha B. Fierle Foundation.
His wife of 43 years, Martha, died in 1994.
Mr. Fierle is survived by his wife, the former Tala Textor; six daughters, Donna, Karen Paulk, Gretchen, Laura, Rachel and Julia; and three sons, Robert J. Jr., William and Peter.
A Mass of Christian Burial will be offered at 9:30 a.m. Oct. 19 in Christ the King Chapel on the Canisius College campus.
– David Robinson