WHO'S WHO - HARRY K. SMITH
When Harry K. Smith was ready to go to work as a teenager in 1926, he determined that he couldn’t make good money working in the family business. So he spent 10 years working on oil tankers, welding pipelines, and selling welding equipment, developing the work ethic that would eventually help him succeed in the family business—Houston-based Big Three Industries.
Smith took the reins of the business in 1948 after the death of his father, Benjamin K. Smith, who co-founded Big Three in 1920. During his 38 years at the helm of that company, Smith took it from a $6 million regional oxygen and nitrogen distribution company to a billion-dollar behemoth that, among other things, supplied all the liquid nitrogen to NASA and the space program.
Smith—who has a photographic memory of the names, places, and experiences of his life—used a knack for networking and an instinct for taking advantage of opportunities to grow Big Three. For example:
He parlayed a small oxygen plant in Brownsville into a big contract with Union-Carbide after Union-Carbide’s Carthage Hydrocoal plant proved to be a bust.
When Smith’s chief engineer at Big Three’s Orange, Texas, plant believed that some use could be made of the nitrogen that was created during oxygen processing, they found nitrogen could prevent fires and explosions. That led to new plants, contracts with giant companies such as DuPont, and the development of the first pipelines to transport gas. Eventually, Big Three had 1,500 miles of pipelines.
Smith met a man who had developed a tool that would send nitrogen to oil wells beneath the surface. To take advantage of it, Smith bought Bowen Tool Co., the largest contractor of "fishing" tools—fishing for foreign objects in oil wells. "We used so much nitrogen, that was a Godsend to the company,"Smith said.
To take advantage of the offshore drilling boom in the 1960s, Smith expanded his business internationally into Scotland, Venezuela, Mexico, and Canada.
After selling Big Three to L’Air Liquide for more than $1 billion in 1986, Smith and his brother Albert founded Smith Development Corp. and started investing in South Texas oil and gas wells. He also purchased the dilapidated Inwood Forest Golf Club in Houston and rebuilt it, resulting in expanded membership and new development in the surrounding area. "I was so used to working, I just couldn’t retire," Smith said.
Smith has been a benefactor to Houston’s educational and medical communities. He has established or helped establish chairs in history at the University of St. Thomas and in architecture and Judaic studies at Rice University. Harry and Albert Smith endowed Houston Methodist Hospital’s coronary care unit and a unit of its neurosensory center. Smith also serves on the Methodist Hospital board of directors and has supported many charitable organizations.
Houston Mayor Bob Lanier recognized those contributions when he proclaimed December 16,1995, Harry K. Smith Day in Houston. Pretty good for a kid who didn’t even think he would succeed in the family business.