For almost forty years, Nathanael Davis was the driving force behind Alcan as it grew into a progressive Canadian multinational and global leader in the multi-faceted aluminum industry.
Soft-spoken and unassuming, Davis introduced Alcan to the world, and the world to Alcan, through personal qualities that inspired near-universal confidence and trust. Under his tutelage, “doing the right thing” became a corporate discipline long before it became fashionable corporate practice. His principles, unwritten at first, were incorporated into a formal manifesto in 1978, representing one of the earliest forerunners to present-day corporate codes of conduct.
Davis was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1915. He graduated from Harvard (cum laude) in 1938 and the London School of Economics in 1939, and then joined Alcan, where he worked on wartime shipments of Canadian aluminum to American buyers. He also contributed to the war effort personally, serving as an officer in the U.S. Navy, mainly in the Pacific Theatre, from 1942 to 1945. In 1947, at age 32, Davis succeeded his father Edward as president of Alcan, to become one of the youngest chief executives to run a large international company.
The post-war period saw increased demand for aluminum, then viewed as a “wonder metal” for its usage in transportation, building, power transmission and packaging. Davis guided Alcan as it embarked on what was then the largest private undertaking in Canadian history, the Kitimat-Kemano project in northwestern British Columbia. Work began in 1950 with the development and construction of a major hydroelectric project and a 286,000-tonne capacity aluminum smelter. Davis modernized Alcan’s smelters in Quebec. Production doubled, reaching 800,000 tonnes per year by the late 1980s, contributing to the success of the fabrication sector in Quebec and Ontario. He nurtured Alcan’s growth as the company invested in new bauxite mines, notably in Jamaica, and in new plants and smelters in dozens of countries. During his tenure as chief executive, Alcan’s net assets increased by 15 times, dollar sales by 29 times, and net profit by 16 times. By 1986, seven years after Davis became non-executive chairman, Alcan was a $6-billion global business, with 67,000 employees worldwide, including 16,000 in Canada.
Davis was a philanthropist, serving for 33 years as Chairman of the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations that were created by his uncle. In 2004, these Foundations gave grants totaling US$9.9 million in support of educational, cultural, scientific and religious institutions in the United States. But his greatest legacy may be the remarkable reverence he engendered among employees and colleagues in Canada and abroad. If one measure of a corporate leader is to be “more mentor than mogul,” then Davis was a leader with few peers. As a former employee wrote in tribute upon his death: “His tenure as CEO and as Chairman covered one of the most exciting periods of Alcan’s international development. But it is as a person, as a human being, that he touched the lives of many of us. He set a tone of integrity and honesty that could be felt in everything Alcan was doing, and which we carried with us in the remote corners of the world where we were operating.”