Country of origin: Scotland
Year came to U.S.: 1846
Businesses: PPG Industries (1883)
Headquarters: Pittsburgh, PA
2019 revenue: $15.1 billion
Worldwide employment: 47,600
Ranked 209 in the 2020 Fortune 500
John Pitcairn Jr. dropped out of school at age 14 and went on to create an industrial giant, PPG Industries.
He built and controlled the first natural gas pipeline for manufacturing purposes and was the first to use it to fuel glass production.
John Pitcairn Jr. came from Scotland as a child with his family to live with his uncle who had established a woolens business in Pittsburgh. When he turned 14, he dropped out of school to work as an office boy for the Pennsylvania Railroad. Although he had little education, he had a knack for business and by his mid-twenties he held several superintendent and general manager positions with railroads.
Pitcairn left the railroad business to focus on energy. He invested heavily in the oil business, and he built and controlled the first natural gas pipeline for manufacturing purposes. As his income grew, he continued to make several wise investments. In 1883, he teamed up with John Ford to establish Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company. It was the first successful producer of high-quality, thick, smooth glass in the U.S. and the world’s first natural-gas-fueled glass plant. Its success spawned widespread industrial use of locally-produced natural gas.
At the turn of the century, Pitcairn led the company into new fields such as chemicals and paint. This was a good fit for the company because paint and glass products typically reach customers through the same distribution channels and the chemical company supplied soda ash necessary to manufacture glass. By 1900, PPG had gained 65 percent share of the U.S. plate glass market and become the country’s second largest paint company. Pitcairn served as a director of PPG from the start, president and CEO from 1897 to 1905 and chairman of the board from 1896 until his death in 1916.
Today, PPG Industries is the world’s leading coatings and specialty materials company with 45 manufacturing facilities in the U.S. and 156 total facilities in 52 countries. In 2017, PPG invested $10.5 million through global grantmaking in PPG communities.