Born: September 25, 1862
Died: May 2, 1934
Former president and CEO, Procter & Gamble Company
William Cooper Procter was born in 1862, the only son of William Alexander and Charlotte Procter and the grandson of William Procter (1801-1884), a founder of Procter & Gamble. As a third-generation Procter, young William Cooper (called "Cooper" to distinguish him from his father and grandfather) introduced many innovative changes to the P&G workplace during a time in U.S. history that was plagued by labor problems.
Living in a Cincinnati, Ohio, suburb called Glendale, William Cooper attended Hughes High School then went off to Princeton University in New Jersey. When he returned to Cincinnati in 1883, Cooper entered the family business. He did not, however, start out as a high-level manager. Instead, he began in the factory and went to work in sales, shipping, and eventually the executive offices.
"When William Cooper Procter suggested that it would benefit employer and employee alike to permit the employee to share in the company's profits, the family thought he had lost his senses. Such a thing was unheard of."
—Industrial Relations, April 1887
Cooper disliked the dark, cramped working conditions at the Procter & Gamble factory and was determined to make changes—changes that had nothing to do with its products like Ivory Soap. These internal changes were for the employees, who Cooper believed should be treated well and provided with good working conditions—thoughts few employers even considered at the time.
Beginning in the late 1880s and extending over the next several decades, Cooper introduced many one-of-a-kind innovations at Procter & Gamble. In 1887, he developed a bonus system where workers were given bonuses twice each year based on how much money the company made). He also instituted a shortened work week, which gave workers a half-day on Saturdays with full pay; guaranteed forty-eight weeks of work each year even when business was slow; introduced health care and life insurance; offered vacation days; and changed the bonus system to a stock-buying program, which awarded workers shares of the company so they actually owned a small slice of Procter & Gamble. These special benefits helped keep employees happy at Procter & Gamble when other major companies faced strikes and a rioting workforce.
In 1890, when Procter & Gamble became a public company (meaning shares of the company were sold on the New York Stock Exchange), Cooper was appointed general manager and his father, William Alexander, was named the firm's first president. Cooper took over as president in 1907, and served as the chief executive officer (CEO) for the next twenty-three years. During this time he helped Procter & Gamble grow from a company worth $20 million a year to $200 million—a great deal of money in the 1920s and 1930s when much of the United States had undergone a terrible economic collapse known as the Great Depression. While many companies, large and small, struggled to stay in business during the Depression, Procter & Gamble remained strong, mostly due to the kinds of products it sold. People always needed soap and laundry detergent; they were not luxury items but part of life's necessities.
Under Cooper's leadership, Procter & Gamble was a trailblazing business in not just the United States, but internationally as well. Besides its original factory in Cincinnati, the firm built manufacturing facilities around the United States, and outside the country in Canada and the United Kingdom. When Cooper decided to step down as president (he stayed on as chairman of the board of directors) and left the company in 1930, he was the last family member to control the firm. Cooper appointed Richard R. Deupree to take over his duties as president.
During his retirement, Cooper remained active in his community, his church, and politics. He was also very generous with his money, giving to many charities (hospitals, relief organizations, the Girl Scouts of America) as well to Princeton University. When Cooper Procter died in 1934, Procter & Gamble had become one of the world's best-known companies, due in great part to his efforts while working in the company founded by his grandfather.