The recent announcement that the University of Dayton (OH) was negotiating to purchase the land upon which sits the "world headquarters" building of NCR came as bittersweet news. It is good that some organization is interested in acquiring and using the property - the last remnant of the former National Cash Register Company. Yet it marks the passing of a corporate giant that lived and prospered for more than 120 years in Dayton, Ohio.
The departure of NCR from its historical home came with a whimper, rather than a bang. The key executives work in NYC and the HQ staff will slink off to suburban Atlanta. Of course, Dayton is a shadow of its former industrial self. Dayton was one of those midwestern cities that prospered through the rise of manufacturing companies: NCR, Mead, Delco, and many more. Now Dayton risks becoming urban rubble on the prairie.
Before the early 1970s, most of NCR was based on the Dayton campus. Labor strife, and the move to electronic products resulted in NCR establishing engineering and manufacturing centers in San Diego, Atlanta, and even Columbia,SC. But Dayton remained the headquarters and had a vibrant sales/marketing, training and administration role to play. So many people moved in and out of the Dayton location on a weekly basis, that Marriott built a hotel to house the visiting employees and customers. Now that hotel stands alone - a reminder to not put all of your eggs in one location.
Now the NCR campus is mostly a vacant lot - a portion of which is designated "brownfield" and requires environmental clean-up. The University of Dayton (UD) has considerable work to redevelop the property. One day, the vacant lots may be filled with classrooms and dorms, recreational facilities, and clean, green grass. Young people, in the midst of acquiring a college education, will be reaching adulthood.
But will any of those young people know what happened at this site before it was UD? Will they have any sense of the lives that were lived at NCR by those intent on achieving success and raising a family?
Today's vacant lots held yesterday's ideas and innovation. Ideas that still have value but have been lost in "downsizing". Someone will have to re-invent that portion of the business wheel that was created at NCR.
NCR invented the capture of a business transaction: the cash register. A customer would buy something, pay for it in cash, and the store clerk would enter the amount in the register. No more shortchanging the customer or store owner. Later, NCR would create systems, including the world's first fully solid state digital computer for the business world, to assemble and report those business transactions.
Early NCR management understood the need for an educated workforce and created a training institute ("Sugar Camp") on campus. Focused on the salesforce, it ultimately provided both product and business environment training. A salesperson who catered to the hospitality industry would receive training on cash registers and the industry. One who sold systems to manufacturing and distribution clients received training on those industries. Another campus, south of the city, trained NCR technicians on servicing NCR products. It was a significant investment in the workforce.
All of that is gone now. If training is provided, it appears to be computer-based and left to the individual to absorb and understand the material. Gone are the days of heading out to a bar after class, to enjoy a cold one with your fellow students. How do you "network" under those conditions?
Education will come again to those vacant lots, if UD has its way. But it won't be the same. It will be academic, not practical; general, not specific. And no commissions will be riding upon the success of mastering the material - just inflated grades.
Gone is the engineering and manufacturing capability that resided on those, now vacant, lots. Real people designed products, hardware and software. Real people built those products with their hands and tools. When the Country need to help an ally, England, manufacture an early analog computer to decode German secrets in WWII, NCR had the engineering and manufacturing capacity to assist. No more. More was lost than just the buildings on those, now vacant, lots. Real knowledge and real ability was lost. One cannot live with "virtual" ability alone. Someone has to be able to bake bread.
Now a private, Catholic university has those vacant lots. A different use will be made of the land. The NCR campus would seem to be more than they (UD) would need, but who can resist a "fire sale"? It was more than the beancounters at NCR needed.