Quality traits such as curiosity, courage, and counter-intuition have characterized key moments of Royal Little’s life. A natural inquiring mind led him to insights others missed or thought not possible, most notably his invention of the business conglomerate, Textron, a company comprised of separate, unrelated, diversified manufacturing enterprises.
Dealt a harsh blow in early life by his father’s death and the relocation of his family from Wakefield, Massachusetts, he faced the grim possibility of attending a rural, one-room school in California, Little was rescued by his uncle, Arthur D. Little, enrolled in a private Boston-area school and then sent on to Harvard. World War I interrupted this path, and, in the trench warfare of France, he demonstrated battlefield audacity and courage. Returning to civilian life, Roy apprenticed himself to Cheney Brothers Silk of Connecticut, and then, in 1923, started his own Special Yarns Company, which led to Textron.
Courage and audacity also framed his style as an aggressive rayon salesman in the 1920s and 1930s. While others drove by auto to see customers, and get ahead of the competition, Little flew a light plane at low altitudes, using lines of telephone poles as his GPS. In 1942, hoping to sell parachutes to the army, he went to jump school and personally demonstrated the quality and reliability of his rayon chutes.
In 1947, the New York Stock Exchange listed Textron for the first time. This new entity comprised a number of textile mills spread throughout New England, including the huge Lonsdale Company, recently purchased from the old Rhode Island firm of Brown and Ives. Tired of being battered by the one industry cycles of boom and bust, in 1952 Little challenged the conventional wisdom of staying within one’s chosen field of expertise and struck out into the unknown territory of the conglomerate. By 1961, the time of Little’s retirement, Textron was completely out of the textile business. It owned companies as diverse as Bell Helicopter and Homelite Products, and companies that produced such unrelated items as golf carts, zippers, pens, and jewelry. In Rhode Island, Textron once owned Bostitch, Speidel, and Gorham.
His contrary-minded approach extended into philanthropy, mixed with business acquisition. Setting up small trust funds to benefit the Rhode Island School of Design and the United Way, he used their tax-exempt status for buying companies, while cutting their trusts in on the profits. The United Way of Southern New England benefitted immensely from a $500 beginning to the present Rhode Island Charities Trust, a fund now administered by the Rhode Island Foundation, that is worth more than $17,000,000. As sole designee, United Way enjoys an annual infusion of more than $2,000,000 as a result of Little’s ingenuity. Junior Achievement and game preserves in Kenya and Tanzania are also his legacies.
In retirement, Royal Little created nearly a dozen new companies, including Amtel, Bevis Industries, and Narragansett Capital. His recreational passion was golf, along with bridge-playing and dancing. Friends endowed a chair in his honor at the Harvard Business School and the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame now honors him with this induction.
- Albert T. Klyberg, L.H.D.
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