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issue: January 2006 APPLIANCE Magazine

Appliance Line
Frits Philips’ Fascinating Life

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Tim Somheil, Editor

Not many appliance engineers stir the public with their passing. When "Frits" Philips died in December, he was mourned in the Netherlands and across Europe.

Frederik Jacques Philips, the "entrepreneur with a generous heart" and longtime fixture at Philips in the Netherlands, died on Dec. 5, 2005. He was on this earth for 100 years, accomplishing much and living a fascinating life. He was a forward-thinker who believed business should be a good member of society, and he put value on giving fair treatment to workers. He spearheaded the company's pioneering environmental policy well before other companies gave the issue much significance.

Philips was born in Eindhoven in the Netherlands on April 16, 1905. He was the only son of Dr. Anton Philips and was the nephew of Gerard Philips, founder of Philips. He was raised and trained with the understanding that one day he would be involved in "The Factory." His upbringing was unspoiled. "My father was not the kind of man to hand me privileges on a plate," Frits Philips wrote in his biography, 45 Years With Philips, in 1976. "I was going to have to earn my place at Philips. He wanted me to be an engineer like his brother."

In 1929, Frits gained his mechanical engineering degree from the Technical University in Delft, having specialized in manufacturing techniques and business administration. He took a memorable trip to the U.S., noting later that America had surpassed Europe in its manufacturing methods, and the Depression in the U.S., soon to come to Europe, opened his eyes to the needs of the poor. Engineering research at Philips in the 1930s produced a number of innovations. Frits' interest in engineering had him working with Gilles Holst, the professor who had managed the research for years.

When the Nazis invaded the Netherlands in 1940, the Philips Group staged a large-scale, 60-vehicle evacuation of people and equipment. The convoy was bombed at Numansdorp. Although the people made it to safety at The Hague, the machinery did not.

Rather than flee to England, Frits was the only Philips director remaining in the Netherlands under the Nazis. It fell to him to determine how to run the company responsibly for the 19,000 Philips workers without making a direct contribution to the Nazi war machine. This was no easy task with two German trustees on-hand to promote German interests in the company. Even amid war, pride in the company was high. In 1941, when the Philips group turned 50, a low-profile commemoration event turned into a spontaneous parade in the streets of Eindhoven.

At the insistence of the Germans, Frits opened a Philips workshop in the concentration camp near Vught. He determined to use the workshop to help make the prisoners' lives more bearable and even to offer them protection. He was successful-382 of the 469 Jewish prisoners who worked in the Philips Kommando survived the war. It was years later, in 1996, that Israel recognized his efforts by awarding him the Yad Vashem medal.

But the war's hardships brought about strikes at Philips factories and Frits was imprisoned by the Germans in May of 1943. His fate might have been worse-on the same day, the Germans executed four workers at the Philips complex at Strijp. He was released in late 1943, but went into hiding from the Germans in mid-1944 and emerged when Eindhoven was liberated.

After the war, Frits served as vice president of Philips. Philips grew fast, pioneering new technologies and growing more international. He became president in 1961, and expanded the company further internationally, including in South America and into Asia. He made the decision to make Philips the first European company to start activities in Taiwan, which helped fuel the company's growth. He also spearheaded technology and manufacturing development in the company. Frits was proving to be a strong supporter of fair labor practices, and helped form the Foundation of Labor in the Netherlands. This alliance of companies, workers and government helped set social and economic policy and resolve conflicts. The Foundation is given much credit for keeping the country almost entirely free of strikes in the post-war period, when there was much labor unrest in France and Germany.

"Frits Philips was ahead of his time in his thinking on the role of business in society, e.g. in terms of protecting the environment or the need for communication," said Gerard Kleisterlee, president and CEO of Royal Philips. "His beliefs live on in our programs, for instance in the field of sustainability."

Frits retired from the presidency of Philips in 1971 and served as Supervisory Board chairman until 1977.

In April of 2005, eight months before his passing, Frits turned 100 and celebrated quietly at home-but there were festivities for thousands of people in the streets of Eindhoven.

Thanks to Koninklijke Philips Electronics N.V. for providing information.


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