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Rogers, Nat (1898-1990)

HistoryLink.org Essay 7312 : Printer-Friendly Format

Through hard work, dedication, and (to some degree) an interest in bridge, Nat Rogers (1898-1990) founded and helped grow Van Rogers & Waters, Inc. (now Univar USA) into North America's largest chemical distributor. Despite his great business success, he is most often remembered for his community service work through such organizations as the Rotary, Seattle Chamber of Commerce, and Community Chest Drive. Often Rogers showed a commitment beyond that of the most dedicated volunteer. For his extensive business and community involvement, the Seattle-King County Association of Realtors named Nat Rogers First Citizen of 1958.

Early Life

Nat Rogers was born in Portland, Oregon, on March 23, 1898, and he spent much of his childhood in Douglas, Alaska, where his father was a grocer. By the time he reached young manhood, the family had relocated to Seattle.

After high school Rogers enrolled in the University of Washington, where he studied to be a chemical engineer until World War I interrupted his coursework. He left to enlist in the Navy, and briefly trained as an observation balloonist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was formally discharged from the service in January 1919.

Rogers returned to Seattle, but did not finish the engineering degree he started at the University of Washington -- at least not until 1943. Instead, between 1921 and 1924 he became a manager at Kaseno Products, an adhesive manufacturing firm. He married Marian Wurzbacher in 1922; the couple eventually had three children -- Robert, Ann, and Nathaniel Stewart.

The Rise of a Jazz-Era Startup

An enormous change would take place in Nat Rogers' life in 1924, reportedly over a game of bridge. It was one day over cards that he and chemical engineer George Van Waters decided to start their own company, which would specialize in buying and selling chemicals, paint, and other raw materials. Each partner contributed $2,500 to start the company, originally known as Van Waters & Rogers, Inc.

As a company, Van Waters & Rogers was initially a small outfit, but jumped into the big time in 1930 when it was named Northwest sales agent for Braun-Knecht-Heimann, a large chemical firm based in San Francisco. It was an alliance that brought Van Waters & Rogers a plethora of new sales, and helped keep the business fairly prosperous, even during the Depression years.  The arrangement continued for many years and in the early 1950s, Van Waters & Rogers purchased Braun-Knecht-Heimann for their own.

Although Van Waters & Rogers was already a growing firm when the original Braun deal was formalized, the 1930 agreement allowed the company to transform itself from a regional business into a major player on the West Coast. It was a trend they would continue in the future. With a careful series of expansions and acquisitions, Van Waters & Rogers gradually moved eastward through the United States and into Canada. Finally, with its acquisition of McKesson Chemical in 1986, the company became a presence throughout North America.

Dedication to Others

As the company continued to grow, Nat Rogers began to delve more and more into civic activities. He became as widely known for his civic endeavors as for his impressive business credentials. Friends used to note that Rogers knew everyone, and everyone knew him. They maintained that it took him a long time to walk a city block, because he was constantly stopping to talk to people he knew, or to people who knew him. "There were times that I fear I tried to do more than my capacity permitted," Rogers once admitted to a longtime friend, Rabbi Raphael Levine. "Van Waters [and I] tried to get a little golf in occasionally prior to 1940, but during the 40's, I never played one game." My handicap the beginning of that period was 11. By the time [World War II] was over, it had risen above the area of respectability to a questionable 30" (Levine, p. 162). 

During his lifetime, Nat Rogers served as President of the Seattle Rotary (1942-1943), Seattle Chamber of Commerce (1948-1949), the Rainier Club, and the Arctic Club, while serving as a trustee to, among other groups, Camp Brotherhood, the Seattle Housing Authority, the Seattle Foundation, Goodwill Industries, and Seattle's Century 21 World's Fair. His chairmanship of the 1945 Community Chest Drive (precursor to United Way) was legendary in that he assumed leadership of the campaign very late in the fundraising cycle, only to lead it to record totals. 

Rogers also served on the boards of several companies, including Pacific Northwest Bell, John Fluke Manufacturing, United Pacific Corp., United Pacific Insurance Co., Equity Fund, Inc., Pacific American Fisheries, Inc., Electrical Products Consolidated, and the Olympic Steamship Co.

He was a Mason and longtime member of the Rotary Club of Seattle (he was a Rotary Foundation Paul Harris Fellow). In 1958, the Seattle-King County Association of Realtors named Nat Rogers First Citizen of the year. Later, in 1988, he was named to Junior Achievement's Puget Sound Business Hall of Fame.

Although much of his public profile was linked to his volunteer work, Rogers was always grateful for a business partner who respected his outside commitments and a corporate structure that provided him the time to pursue those interests. "Van never complained and I do feel that my activities community-wise may have helped the company grow as a real going concern in this area" (Levine, p. 162).

A Life Worth Living

When Nat Rogers died at age 91 on February 6, 1990, he was lauded as a "scion of the Seattle business community." A longtime resident of the exclusive Hunts Point area, near Bellevue, he was survived his wife Marian, three children, 11 grandchildren, and 23 great grandchildren. 

At the time of Rogers' death, the company he helped found had grown from its modest beginnings over a game of bridge to an impressive organization: With almost 110 locations, Van Waters & Rogers (known as Univar since the mid-1970s) stood as North America's largest chemical distributor, with annual sales in the neighborhood of $1.4 billion. This level of success brought business suitors, and in 1996 the company was acquired by minority shareholder Royal Pakhoed, currently the world's largest chemical distributor. 

After being known briefly as Vopak USA, the original organization was spun off in 2002 and changed its name back to Univar. Sales continued to soar -- in 2003 the company took in $4.7 billion, putting it in the top 10 of U.S.-traded Washington companies, just between Amazon.com and Starbucks. 

Sources:
"Nat Rogers," Washington Northwest Frontier, Vol. III (New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, Inc., 1957), pp. 133-134; "Nat Rogers," Who's Who in Washington -- Century 21 Edition (Sioux Falls, SD: Midwest Beach Co. 1963), p. 309; Rabbi Raphael Levine (with Anne Barlow), Rabbi Levine's Profiles in Service: Stories of People Who Help People (Seattle: Evergreen Publishing Co., 1985), pp. 162-163; Jeffrey L. Covell, "Univar Corporation," in International Directory of Company Histories Vol. 9 ed. By Paula Kepos (Washington, D.C.: St. James Press, 1994), pp. 530-532; "Nat Rogers is "Man of the Year" The Seattle Times, December 12, 1958, p. 12; "Nat Rogers to Receive City Honors," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 18, 1959, p. 35; "First Citizen," The Seattle Times, January 21, 1959, p. 12; "Nat Rogers, 91, Business Leader," Ibid., February 9, 1990, p. D-9; "Memorial Service Monday for Nat Rogers," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 19, 1990, p. B-2; "History of Univar USA," VectorBytes website accessed July 26, 2004 (www.vectorbytes.com/aboutunivar/index.cfm); Drew DeSilver, "Chemical Giant Univar Tweaks Formula," The Seattle Times, November 23, 2004, website accessed November 23, 2004 (http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/ businesstechnology/2002098231_ newunivar23.html).


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