An (Elevator) People Person
Doug Witham describes his rise in the industry, shares advice and talks about retirement plans.
by Kaija Wilkinson
Few names in the elevator industry are as recognizable as Witham. Doug Witham had a long career in which he helped grow companies including Adams, Courion and GAL/Hollister-Whitney to remarkable success, while his wife, Teresa, was longtime director of the National Association of Elevator Contractors (NAEC). His son, Dustin, is a rising star at Midwest Elevator in St. Louis. Doug and Teresa Witham have retired but stay involved in the industry and with the many close friends they developed. Your author (KW) caught up with Doug Witham (DW) at the Elevator Escalator Safety Foundation Annual General Meeting in Tampa in February. That, of course, was just before the COVID-19 pandemic upended both professional and personal plans. Doug and Teresa had a few fun trips on the near horizon. Here’s hoping they will be able to reschedule.
KW: Where are you from, and what did you want to be when you grew up?
DW: I don’t believe I ever grew up. I was born in Lima, Ohio. Our dogs
followed us around on bicycles, and you could ride to the other side of town and right back. Our parents rang a bell to call us to dinner. I don’t know that I had any aspirations back then. When I went to The Ohio State University (in Columbus, Ohio), I majored in Political Science. I had law in the back of my mind, but I was not a very corporate guy or a very regimented student. I discovered quickly I wasn’t going to go into law.
“A lot of my best friends are friends because of elevators.”
KW: When and how did elevators enter the picture?
DW: That happened shortly after graduating from Ohio State. My best boyhood friend was working for an elevator company in Chicago but wanted to go back to social work. Dick Gregory, the guy who owned the company he worked for, said, “It’s OK if you want to leave, but you have to find a replacement.” So, my friend called me and asked if I had ever thought about moving to Chicago. I said, “No, but I’ve thought about working.” So, at age 23 or 24, I left Columbus and wound up at Gregory Elevator. I spent a couple of years there, and Dick Gregory was an incredible mentor. He took me to places and introduced me to people. To this day, I tell him how much I owe him.
When Gregory Elevator lost the public-housing contracts, which was a big part of its business, I thought, “Hmm, my name’s not Gregory. Maybe I ought to find another place to work.” I went to Adams Elevator Equipment Co., which was a big manufacturer. I went into the sales department, became sales manager, then manufacturing manager, then back to sales. Adams was purchased by Westinghouse in 1986. As I said, I’m not a corporate guy, so I had to get out. At the time, I was earning a lot of money for someone in my position and had a difficult time finding another good job. I searched for about a year and a half and finally came across Courion. Mike Garner and Bob Jackson had just bought the business from a prior owner and were looking to raise their visibility in the elevator industry. They thought I could help them do that. I spent five years there, and we grew the business fantastically. The whole time I was at Adams and Courion, Walt and Herbie Glaser (founders of GAL Manufacturing Corp.) were trying to hire me. I still had kids in high school and was not going to move them to New York. So, as soon as they graduated, I accepted the job at GAL. I spent 20 years there and retired in 2019. It’s been a great career. Walt and Herbie Glaser are the two best men I’ve ever known. Being part of their team gave me opportunity in the elevator industry that was second to none.
KW: What was the most challenging/rewarding job you ever had?
DW: Probably my years at Courion as vice president of Sales and Marketing. Mike and Bob recognized they didn’t have an industry presence, and they needed one to be successful. They only sold to elevator contractors. It was a big challenge, but we tripled business in five years. I say “we,” because Mike and Bob were certainly a big, big part of it. Those guys were so good
KW: What are your favorite cities in the world?
DW: Both Budapest and Istanbul are really neat cities. When I was at GAL, our sister company bought a lot of bronze fittings from a vendor in Istanbul, and I became really good friends with two guys, Dijon and his brother, whose name I can’t remember. It was something that, in North America, made you think of a condiment, so I started calling them the condiment brothers. I traveled to Istanbul probably five times in a three-year period, and found I really enjoyed the city — the architecture, the marketplaces.
KW: What advice would you offer a young person considering a career in the elevator industry?
DW: Work hard. There is going to be a period in your life where you are going to have to focus on your career. If you have a huge family factor — if you have a huge, personal anything — it’s going to retard your progress. I sacrificed. My wife stayed home and raised the kids, and I give her all the credit for that. At the same time, I was flying out on Monday morning, and flying back home on Saturday morning or Friday night. So, work hard, but also network and focus. Networking is vital. When I was just starting out, I got to grab onto Dick Gregory’s coattails. He took me to NAEC when there wasn’t anybody my age at those things, and when he got there, he introduced me to all these people. It was very cool.
KW: If you weren’t an elevator man, what would you be?
DW: Maybe a lobbyist, trying to influence others to adopt what I believe.
“Work hard, but also network and focus. Networking is vital.”
KW: What have you been enjoying most about retirement, and do you have any goals?
DW: I like that I no longer have to be accessible. For the past two years, I was a consultant for the group (Vantage) that bought Hollister-Whitney and GAL. I felt an obligation to be accessible on weekdays from 8:30 in the morning until 5 at night. Now, if I wake up in the morning and want to do crossword puzzles in bed, I’ll do crossword puzzles in bed.
Both my wife and I traveled a lot for work, and, now, it is more for pleasure. We just came back from a trip to St. Lucia with a bunch of elevator people. We’re going to Alaska with some elevator people. Dick and Carol Vinciquerra are some of our best friends in the elevator industry, and we’ve traveled together to quite a few different places. We did a European riverboat cruise a couple of years ago. The four of us sat down one time recently and said, “What’s on the bucket list?” and all four of us said, “Alaska.” So, we’re planning to do an Alaskan cruise.
KW: I was going to ask what you’ll miss most about the elevator industry, but it sounds like you’re still involved, in a way.
DW: A lot of my best friends are friends because of elevators. Almost all the people I hang out with and stay close to are elevator types. We have a group of friends in the neighborhood, but most of our friends — mine and hers — are elevator people.
KW: How’s your golf game? Is it getting better now that you have time to practice?
DW: Not yet, but it’s about to. When I was in Chicago in my early years, I played golf at least once a week. I carried a single-digit handicap for years. During my time in St. Louis and New York, I was too busy, and golf was too expensive. Now, I’m returning to it. I just went to a club fitter and got a new set of irons fitted for me. The same guys, all elevator guys, have gone to Cabo (San Lucas, Mexico) every year, and this year will be our 18th. I’m going to buy a new driver before I go, and I’ve joined a group in the area where we live that plays golf on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday. I won’t play on Saturday, because that’s family day, but I intend to play two days at least throughout the spring.
KW: So, you’re going to kick ass?
DW: That’s the plan. But, all the guys I play with are younger than me, and none of them let me play on the senior tees. I think that’s just mean. I don’t see how they could ever get any tournament satisfaction from a score lower than mine if I have to play on the same tees they do.