James M. Gerstley brought financial acumen, diplomatic skills, and management expertise to the United States Borax & Chemical Corporation and its predecessor, Pacific Coast Borax (PCB) during the crucial years from 1933 to 1961. Then as now, the mining industry was global. In 1933, PCB was a subsidiary of Borax Consolidated, Ltd. of London, which had offices throughout Europe and South America. English born, James Gerstley started with PCB as an assistant to the President in 1933. He became a U.S. citizen in 1938 and rose to the position of President of PCB in 1950.
In 1933, PCB was a small company that mined sodium borate from a rich underground mine in Boron, California. In the United States, PCB refined the sodium borate to produce Borax and boric acid, including the famous 20 Mule Team Borax, 20 Mule Team Borax soap chips, and Boraxo, a powdered hand soap. In England, PCB’s parent company also refined sodium borate to make Borax and boric acid, and it sold sodium borate for the same use to customers in Europe and Asia.
World War II cut PCB off from former large markets in Germany, Holland, France, and Austria. When the United States entered the war, many household products were rationed, and soap became very scarce. James Gerstley stopped production of 20 Mule Team Borax Soap Chips, which contained 85% soap and 15% Borax, and ordered that soap be used only to make Boraxo, which contained 15% soap and 85% Borax.
The demand for Boraxo became so great that PCB was able to sell its entire production and offset most of its export losses.
In the late 1940s, Gerstley instituted the “Death Valley Days” television show, a follow-up to a well-established radio program of the same name. The popular show greatly stimulated sales of PCB’s packaged products. Ronald Reagan played the part of the “Old Ranger” on “Death Valley Days” before becoming Governor of California and then President of the United States.
In the 1950s, James Gerstley played a key role in successfully fighting off a takeover bid and raised the necessary funds to transfer all U.S. assets of the parent British company to PCB. In 1956, he merged PCB with U.S. Potash Company to form U.S. Borax & Chemical Company and became President of the new company. In 1957, U.S.B.&C.C. was listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
In the 1950s, James Gerstley also provided the leadership for conversion of the Boron underground mine to an open pit operation. At the same time, a new refinery was built at Boron, and a new research laboratory was built at Alameda, California. These facilities all became operational in 1957. After overcoming startup difficulties of considerable magnitude, U.S.B.&C.C. produced a then record profit in 1960. In 1957, a new mineral discovered at Boron was named Gerstleyite to honor James Gerstley.
James Gerstley retired as President of U.S. Borax & Chemical Company in 1961 but remained on the Board until 1972. He carried his manifest management skills and financial acumen into retirement, contributing to several important community causes.