Leading in Difficult Times

June 3, 2020

Bob Gilmore was president of Caterpillar Inc. from December 1977 until his retirement in June 1985. A native of Peoria, Illinois, Bob celebrates his 100th birthday this week – just 19 days after Caterpillar’s 95th anniversary. It’s easy to see a reflection of Bob’s journey from shop floor to boardroom in Caterpillar’s own history. 

Today, we are celebrating along with this now-legend, piecing together his remarkable story from a series of published interviews Bob has given through the years. 

 Bob Gilmore’s story harkens back to a time we often view through a warm sepia tone lens, regarding it as simpler than today. Yet, the reality is there was plenty of hardship and sacrifice to go around. Bob grew up during the Great Depression and served in World War II as a U.S. Air Force navigator, flying 30 missions in the European theater. After the war, Bob returned to Caterpillar – where prior to enlisting, he’d worked as a machine apprentice earning 32 cents an hour. 

Upon his homecoming in 1946, Bob was assigned to a third-shift job in one of Caterpillar’s machine shops. It was, in Bob’s words, humbling to trade in battle stars and bars for the midnight shift. But soon, the future president began his ascent to the top ranks of the company. Along the way, Bob served as factory manager at Building KK in East Peoria – one of his favorite assignments. 

“I was only 34 at the time, and KK was a newer facility with 2,500 employees making engines for worldwide use,” Bob once recalled. “That was a thrill. I still remember driving across the Cedar Street Bridge on my way to work, thinking what a privilege it was to run the plant.” 

A few years later, in 1963, Bob served as plant manager in Grenoble, France – an international assignment that provided a firm foundation for leading a global business. “In Grenoble, I learned more about marketing, parts distribution, finance, governmental relations and other areas. It broadened me tremendously and helped me later on,” Bob said of the experience. 

Bob was named president of Caterpillar in December 1977. The seven and a half years of his tenure include some of the most challenging in Caterpillar’s history. Beginning in 1982, sky rocking interest rates, unprecedented advantages for Japanese competitors, and a lack of sophisticated market intelligence led Caterpillar to lose a billion dollars in three years – closing nine plants and laying off more than 30,000 employees. A difficult time indeed. When asked about his proudest accomplishment, Bob often said that seeing the company through record losses in 1982 to profitability in 1985 – the year he retired –was something he was most proud of. 

Of course, when Bob started working on the shop floor as a machine apprentice, he didn’t know then that he would eventually sit in the company’s top spot. And he still holds the record as the last person who has traveled that road. But the journey from shop floor to board room, from small-town boy to international businessman, gave Bob the experiences and perspectives that helped him and the company persevere through challenging times. 

You might call it “yellow blood.” 

When asked about it, Bob once explained, “As you get further along with the company, you develop a sense of loyalty, a sense of respect, and a sense of pride. At Caterpillar, that’s yellow blood. In recent years, Caterpillar has had to change with the times and adapt to a different operating environment – but the yellow blood still flows … even though we developed yellow blood in a different fashion in my era, and it may be harder to infuse today … the results should be the same: You do a job you like for a company you feel good about, and the future will take care of itself.’ 

‘That’s the way it was for me.” 


Bob Gilmore