Former Racine-area resident James Ketelsen, who helped shape J.I. Case Co. and the Case brand for more than three decades, never lost his love for making tractors.
Ketelsen died Thursday in Houston of natural causes. He was 86.
The Davenport, Iowa, native graduated from Northwestern University’s business school in 1952, joined the U.S. Navy and served as an officer on the USS Hunt in the Pacific during the Korean War.
He began his business career as a certified public accountant in the Chicago office of Price Waterhouse. While there, he began to handle Case’s books and joined that company in about 1960 as assistant comptroller and eventually became vice president of finance and treasurer, according to CNH Industrial, which now owns the Case IH brand.
In the early 1960s, Case was in a precarious financial situation: facing labor strikes, tremendous debt strain and near bankruptcy, according to CNH. Ketelsen led a management team that designed and implemented a bank agreement to keep the company from drowning in debt. It was said the team “guided Case through solvency.”
Ketelsen was named president of Case on Dec. 7, 1967 — at age 37 — and began to reorganize the company into three operating divisions: agriculture, construction equipment and components.
In 1970, Houston-based Tenneco purchased Case, and Ketelsen became chief financial officer with a seat on the board, said Kathryn Ketelsen, his widow and wife of 29 years.
Ketelsen became president of Tenneco in 1978 and retired as chairman and CEO in 1992. During his tenure, in 1985 Case bought International Harvester’s agricultural equipment line and became Case IH.
Strong beliefs, volunteerism
His daughter, Lee Ketelsen of Boston, said their family’s years in the Racine area stretched from her kindergarten year to her senior year at Horlick High School, from which she opted to graduate rather than moving to Houston. Lee said she never paid much attention when her father talked about business at the dinner table.
“But I knew from later, from talking with him, that he always cared about Case and people being employed in Racine … he believed that companies should be about producing something useful, employing people and being a part of the community.”
Lee said she heard that while her father was with Tenneco, “he was against closing companies that were still viable and profitable.”
According to the family, during Ketelsen’s time with Tenneco he was among the first corporate leaders in the nation to link business profitability and employee health. His commitment to promoting his employees’ physical fitness led him to start the Houston Tenneco Marathon, which continues today under different sponsorship.
Ketelsen showed his commitment to volunteerism by giving paid time off for employees to pursue those interests, the family said. After retirement, being inspired by President George H.W. Bush’s famous 1989 inaugural “Thousand Points of Light” speech, Lee and Kathryn formed the nonprofit Project GRAD, or Graduation Really Achieves Dreams, in Houston to try to reduce the city’s “enormous dropout problem.”
“Today Project GRAD has sent more than 7,500 students to college, inspired countless others to go, and helped an untold number to get a high school diploma,” the family wrote in Ketelsen’s obituary.
Lee Ketelsen said that even at the end for her father “Case was very important to him,” and he kept several toy Case tractors in his sight. “Making tractors, it seemed like that was the kind of thing he believed in,” she said.
A memorial service for Ketelsen will be held Friday in Houston.