Joseph-Armand Bombardier Simply Plowed Ahead
October 10, 2007: 08:05 PM EST
Oct. 11, 2007 (Investor's Business Daily delivered by Newstex) --
As Joseph-Armand Bombardier grew up in his native Quebec in the early 20th century, the arrival of winter meant the end of freedom.
Snow buried houses. If people got out, their sole transportation was horse-drawn sleigh.
So Bombardier developed a mission: conquer winter.
In the world of transportation, he did. His snowmobile, the Ski-Doo, became and remains one of the world's best-selling models. The company he founded is a world giant in transportation systems, from trains to jet aircraft.
The oldest of eight children, Bombardier (1907-64) was born into a supportive and nurturing family.
His parents farmed and ran a general store. Joseph-Armand showed a skill and passion for mechanics. At age 10 he built a working model tractor from a cigar box and a broken alarm clock. At 13, he built a steam engine from sewing machine parts.
He made clockwork toys for his seven siblings. To finance the clock mechanisms that he bought from the local jeweler, he saved the modest stipends he earned as an altar boy serving Mass.
To the young Bombardier, all things were possible. And his dream was to conquer the snows of winter.
By age 15, he had the germ of an idea. It came from a bit of mischief.
Bombardier delighted in dismantling and rebuilding his father's car engine. His dad, Alfred, soon gave him a derelict Model T Ford motor. (NYSE:F PRS) (NYSE:F PRA) (NYSE:F)
It was beyond repair, or so Alfred Bombardier thought. His son had other ideas. Undaunted by the seeming mechanical mess, the boy repaired it with help from his brother. It became the power for his first snow machine.
He made a huge wooden propeller and mounted it on the drive shaft behind the transmission. The contraption sat on a frame atop four sleigh runners. It worked -- to the amazement of people on the main street of Valcourt, Quebec.
The youngster's passion for mechanics took a temporary back seat when he went to a seminary.
Bombardier gave it his best shot, but remained dissatisfied with religious training and fascinated with engines. Determined to pursue his own path, he convinced his parents that his future was in mechanics -- for which he had no formal training.
Knowing he needed guidance, he began an apprenticeship at 17 in a Montreal garage. He took engineering and mechanics courses by correspondence to bone up on details. He also learned English and devoured technical and trade journals.
Confident in his skills, he opened his own garage at age 19 with a loan from his father. To meet his shop's electrical needs, he built a dam on a stream and installed a turbine.
He made sure his work was solid, and guaranteed it personally. His reputation for ingenuity and reliability spread through the region. He tackled any mechanical problem, from cars to pumps to harvesters.
But he had only three seasons to work in. Winter shut down road traffic.
So in the darkest, coldest months -- when business halted -- he worked on conquering snow.
An official biography at the J. Armand Bombardier Museum in Valcourt says the man was "not so much a tycoon as he was a thinker. Always mindful of snow, he plotted how to escape its confinements, how to accept the inevitable presence of winter conditions and how best to travel in the midst of them."
He tinkered with the idea for a year until he developed, in 1930, a track-driven machine steered by braking one track or the other.
But engines of the day were too big and heavy for what Bombardier had in mind. When his own son died in the dead of winter from a ruptured appendix in 1934 -- because the family couldn't battle the snow to get him to the hospital -- Bombardier redoubled his efforts.
He came up with a rubber-encased toothed wheel and a rubber and cotton track, which he patented. He followed that with steering by front skis instead of tracks. His first model, which he called the work horse, could carry seven people in a heated cabin. By 1937, he had built and sold 12 snowmobiles.
His invention was a boon to the people of rural Quebec. Children rode to school in his snowmobiles. Freight and mail could move through snow. People could get to the hospital.
He was quick to recognize that success was a team effort. Bombardier's brothers pitched in to run the business so that he could concentrate on innovation. Later his sons and daughters would help boost the firm into a global presence.
During World War II, he created a 12-passenger snowmobile. After the war, it found a market with the police, the forest industry, and oil and mining exploration companies.
When the war ended, he faced a dilemma -- to sell the firm to a big carmaker for a vast sum or keep it independent. He knew innovation was best fostered by thinking for yourself, and opted for independence.
At long last, in 1948, the Quebec government decided to plow roads in the winter. Instead of lamenting the loss of his market, Bombardier adapted. He diversified his company into building other kinds of tracked vehicles, such as a tractor for hauling ore and logs.
Bombardier also saw the plowed roads as a chance. Using new, lighter engine technology, he introduced the Ski-Doo snowmobile in 1958. It took the market by storm.
This story originally ran Nov. 9, 2004, on Leaders & Success.
Originally published in the October 11, 2007 version of Investor's Business Daily