Howard Schuemann

Edition: April 2002 - Vol 10 Number 04
Article#: 1210
Author: Repertoire

On June 6, 1962, at about 2 a.m., the phone in the Schuemann house in Cleveland rang. “I remember my mother coming down the hall and saying the store's on fire,'' recalls Bill Schuemann, who was 19 at the time and home for summer from Arizona State University. The “store'' was Schuemann-Jones Co., a medical/surgical supply business on 9th Street in Cleveland.

The family – including Bill's father, Howard, who with his brother, Robert, owned the business – drove downtown to see what could be done. “We all watched the store burn,'' says Bill. “It was a hell of a sight to see.'' The first and second floors simply folded up into the basement, he recalls, and the building's yellow bricks crashed onto microscopes and other goods. The fire wasn't struck until 7 or 8 that evening. An air compressor in the basement had caught fire and started the blaze.

That the company survived and even thrived in the years after that is a testament to the leadership and tenacity of Howard Schuemann, who died this past January.

Carter Hotel
The company's 65 or so employees showed up that morning, while the building was still burning, wondering what to do next. Acting quickly, Howard rented out a couple of floors in the nearby Carter Hotel and set up temporary headquarters there, until he could secure another location, which could receive and ship goods, less than a week later.

Employees spent days picking through the mess, salvaging what they could. They peeled apart soaked ledger cards with accounts receivable information, and laid them on the floor to dry out. “People might have thought we didn't have ledgers any more,'' says Bill. “But we eventually got paid by everyone.'' And, needless to say, the company's vendors found a way to make sure Schuemann-Jones received all of its bills, regardless of where the company was located.

The speed with which Howard Schuemann responded to the 1962 emergency says volumes about him, says Bill. “My dad always showed a lot of leadership,'' he says. “Other people might have gone around in circles'' trying to figure out what to do in the critical hours, days, weeks and months following the blaze, says Bill. But not Howard. Ultimately, approximately a year later, Schuemann-Jones moved to a new building – a former Buick dealership – on 117th Street.

Due in large part to Howard Schuemann's determination, decisiveness and appetite for king-sized insurance policies, Schuemann-Jones survived the catastrophe, as it had many hardships in the past.

The company was founded in 1902 by Howard's father, Edward Schuemann. Originally from Hoboken, NJ, Edward had been a sales rep for E. H. Hessler Co., a manufacturer of surgical instruments, before starting Schuemann-Jones with a partner. The company had moved to several locations in Cleveland before settling on East Ninth Street in downtown Cleveland.

Howard began working full-time in the family business in 1933, at the height of the Great Depression. He had been attending Dartmouth College, but his father needed help at the store. Consequently, Howard never did graduate from college. But he never looked back. “If my dad ever entertained ideas of leaving the business,'' says Bill, “I never heard them.'' He was dedicated and unselfish, he says. “He was high on ethics and principles, and in doing the right thing. Very old school thinking.'' In 1934, he married Dorothy Williams. Together they had two children: Bill and Beverly.

Under Howard's direction, Schuemann-Jones grew to be the biggest local distributor in Ohio. “If you were a doctor in Cleveland, the chances of your being called on by one of our salesmen was as likely as nightfall,'' says Bill. Doctors would come into the store on Wednesdays, look at the displays of instruments, EKGs, beds, etc., and buy equipment and supplies. Meanwhile, the company's sales reps would be out in the city, calling on hospitals and industrial accounts, such as Alcoa Aluminum and Republic Steel. Although Howard served as the company's vice president and treasurer, he always maintained a couple of accounts, including University Hospital.

The Nationals Move In
Over the years, the competitive landscape in Cleveland grew tougher. “It was like a knot getting tighter and tighter and tighter,'' says Bill, who went to work at Schuemann-Jones after graduating from Arizona State University in 1966. Out-of-town competitors, such as American Hospital Supply, Stuart and Aloe, began descending into the Cleveland market.

The company's customers were changing too. No longer did doctors drop by the store on Wednesdays to do their leisurely day-off shopping, recalls Bill. And fewer pharmaceuticals were actually being handed out by doctors in their offices, thus eliminating a portion of Schuemann-Jones's business. But it was the differences between Howard and his nephew (who took over partial ownership of the business following his father's death) that led to the sale of Schuemann-Jones to Boston-based Healthco in 1969.

Not ready to retire at age 57, Howard ran the new company's instrument division for seven years. Then, he and his second wife, Carol (his first wife, Dorothy, had died in 1970), opened up their own small company, Schuemann Laboratories, which sold drugs and specialty items to drug wholesalers. Their biggest product was the analgesic Gelpirin and Methalgen. Ultimately, they sold the company to Alra Labs.

Upon his retirement, Howard indulged himself in fly fishing, golfing and traveling. He journeyed to Italy in 1981 and happened to be in St. Peter's Square the day Mehmet Ali Agca attempted to assassinate Pope John Paul II. “My dad was a fair and good businessman,'' says Bill. “He was never cruel or ruthless. He was a gentleman. If someone couldn't pay, he'd want to know why, then he'd try to work out some kind of reasonable arrangement.'' He had great leadership skills too. “But he led in a very tactful, genteel way, as opposed to an autocratic style that some people follow. Dad personally made countless deliveries on the way home including slum neighborhoods, dropping off medications and supplies that were essential to some person's life. He was a good Samaritan and angel in this tough world.''