Sidney Guller, BSBA ’47, strolls through the hallways of Essex Industries, greeting employees by first name and pointing out the latest improvements in the 40,000-square-foot building, located in south St. Louis. He gestures to the state-of-the-art 3D printers, demonstrates the modern window shades, and points out the Sidney Center, his namesake classroom where the manufacturing firm’s continuing education takes place. The recent renovation — with interiors designed by his granddaughter — is a point of pride.
“You’re going to find a lot of Washington University diplomas hanging on these walls,” Guller says.
Guller and his late brother, Harold, BS ’39, founded Essex Industries in 1947 in their father’s basement. In the beginning, Sidney worked as a part-time accountant while completing his education.
“When I switched from engineering to a business major, I had to take a lot of extra courses in summer school,” he recalls. “After class, I rode the streetcar to work at a land title insurance company in Clayton. It was worth it. Washington University gave us the education and the knowledge to solve problems on both the engineering and the business side. This paid off at a time when manufacturing companies were rushing to meet the demands of a new era.”
The brothers entered the aerospace and defense market with their first product, a radio noise filter designed for U.S. Navy jets. Over the years, they combined their strengths and expanded their product line into response, safety and medical markets to become leaders in their field.
Today, the company operates out of four facilities with more than 180,000 square feet of manufacturing space and 370 employees. It has contributed to virtually every major military or commercial aerospace program in its 68 years of operation.
Receiving leads to giving
Guller, who serves as chairman of the board, grew up in Richmond Heights, near Washington University. His parents, Fannie and Louis, raised six children. Louis worked hard and did well in real estate, but the 1929 stock market crash proved devastating. “We had little left,” Guller says.
“I received tuition help from the early investors in Washington University,” Guller recalls. “Their funds also brought great professors to the campus. As I saw the university grow from good to great, I came to realize the impact of their generosity.
“This is why my wife, Bobbi, and I became founding members of the Scholars in Business program,” Guller explains. “She took great pride in our students, especially the women, who seemed confident and bound for success.”
To honor his late wife, who died in 2010, Guller established the Bobbi Guller Memorial Scholarship in Business. Other gifts include both the Bobette and Sidney Guller Endowed Scholarship and Annual Scholarship in Business, the Bobbi and Sidney Guller Lounge in the Knight Center and, most recently, the Guller Classroom, located in Bauer Hall. Essex Industries sponsors the Guller Joint Program Scholarship for students in the 3/2 program, which offers students an opportunity to earn a bachelor’s degree in engineering and an MBA.
With his nephew, Keith, EMBA ’89, the CEO of Essex, and other family members, Guller also established The Guller Family Endowed Research Fund for the Washington University and Barnes-Jewish Heart & Vascular Center.
In total, he has supported the university for more than 46 years.
Continuing the good work
At age 91, Guller still reports to the office daily. His disarming smile can light up a room. Although he moves a bit more slowly than he did a decade ago, he projects the vim and vigor of a man many years his junior.
“I’m splendid, and you?” He answers his phone with characteristic joie de vivre. If it is a great day — and most days are in his book — an invitation to lunch or dinner follows.
“There’s no family left at home, but lots of family here,” Guller says. While several family members do, indeed, work at Essex, Guller counts all of the staff as family. And he doesn’t hesitate to offer them the advice that helped forge both his own character and his work ethic: “Roll up your sleeves and use your education!”
Guller has witnessed generations in the employ of Essex. “The grandchildren of former employees apply for our jobs,” he says. “We also have a scholarship program that helps children of employees who need a financial boost.”
Signs of boosting others are evident in his office, a paean to the university. His framed diploma, signed by then-Chancellor Arthur Holly Compton, Nobel prize–winning physicist, holds court on the east wall. Photos of Guller Scholars, some of whom later established their own scholarship programs, are clustered here and there. And there are awards — the Olin Dean’s Medal received in 2011 and a Founders Day Distinguished Alumni Award in 1990 — and framed documents and memorabilia reflecting his longtime leadership and service to Washington University, Sigma Alpha Mu Fraternity and other organizations.
What does Guller value most? “The ability to help people grow and get an education,” he says. “We need to educate people to understand the world’s economy, problems and workforces. We’d better be sure that our country always has the edge. That’s where Washington University comes in. I love the university because it does so much good.”