Ambrose John "AJ" McNamara Jr., 72, formerly or Worcester and Holden, most recently living in Los Angeles, died September 21, 2010 in Cedars Sinai Medical Center.

A significant player of the post-OSHA industrial safety field, AJ worked 17 years for Norton Co., an abrasives manufacturer that acquired a string of safety businesses in the early 1970s through AJ’s guidance. These companies were consolidated under the North Safety banner, which became one of the iconic companies in the safety market of the 1970s and 80s. North is now a brand name in the Honeywell staple of safety and health businesses.

When AJ was acquiring small, family-run safety businesses in the early 70s, the new-fangled OSHA agency, run by a Reading, Pa., department store retailer who later would own a tour bus company, (think those credentials would fly today?) was conducting 80,000 inspections a year and scaring businesses into buying all sorts of PPE. Safety distributors and manufacturers never had it better. The manufacturing base in the U.S. was still strong, though just beginning to head overseas. Demand for hard hats, gloves, ear plugs, steel-toe shoes, respirators and “Buddy Holly” safety glasses would never be higher.

Membership boomed in the American Society of Safety Engineers and the American Industrial Hygiene Association. “Engineers” and “Industrial” were reflective of the times, far less applicable in 2010 as the professions have expanded beyond engineering and industrial operations.

The National Safety Council in the 70s and early 80s held its annual National Safety Congress in the basement of the Conrad Hilton Hotel on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, the NSC’s home. Attendees trudged up and down stairs and got lost trying to find exhibit halls tucked away on different floor and wings of the Hilton. A far cry from the sleek glass and steel San Diego Convention Center where the 2010 Congress & Expo was held.

It wasn’t exactly “Mad Men,” but the Congress in the 70s and early 80s was typical of trade shows of the time: sales meetings that wound up with cocktails all around, dinners where at least sloshed one sales manager ended up face down in his plate of spaghetti, nights carousing up and down Rush Street, and sales reps showing up for booth duty in the morning with dark circles under their eyes after maybe two hours of shut eye.

The sales pitch was easy back then: OSHA says you need these products. That was it. And the market was far from mature in those salad days. Many, many companies were short of the required PPE.

Safety distributors were living the good life. It would be decades before the likes of Grainger barged in and started stealing business. The Safety Equipment Distributors Association was a family affair, with a small, close-knit group of family-run distributorships retreating each summer to a resort where scores of kids would run around like at a summer camp.

AJ, as those who knew him, was a proud family man. He leave his wife of 46 years, Susan McNamara of Los Angeles, three children, James and wife Olivia of Taiwan, Elizabeth and husband Tom of Los Angeles, Margaret and husband Mike of Grosse Pointe, MI. Six grandchildren, Andrew and Alyssa of Taiwan, Holden and Allison of Michigan, T.J. and Luke of Los Angeles.

AJ was something of a renaissance man: sharp business mind, maverick, salesman, an entrepreneur, one of For Distributors Only’s founding columnists and supporters, early enthusiast of the Internet and its profit possibilities, technologist, raconteur, formidable networker, tireless idea man.

A.J. was born in Utica, NY, graduated from White Plains High School, Bryant College and received his MBA from Boston University.

After his years at Norton, he launched John Alden Associates, a consulting business in the industrial safety field. After September 11, 2001, he passionately ventured into the field of products for first responders under the ForResponders moniker.

AJ was certainly passionate. I recall debating with him in the 1990s about the money-making potential of the then embryonic Internet. He was convinced distributors and manufacturers had to sell online, and get online fast. Of course he had his own idea of how to pull that off, which he tried to sell the industry for year.

As a trained journalist, AJ was a mentor for me when it came to understanding the world of businesses, corporations, the likes of General Electric boss Jack Welch, who AJ traveled with on one of Neutron Jack’s “bombing runs” — riding a small plane to out-of-the-way facilities where Welch would walk in, announced large layoffs, and hop on the plane to his next destination. That was one of a thousand AJ stories. And every one of them ended with a punch line. AJ loved to laugh. He will be missed. And in the modern, consolidated, corporate safety industry, there will never be another one like him.

A celebration of life for AJ will be held in Los Angeles on October 23, 2010.

The family encourages everyone to take care of your health. Donations to Heifer International are suggested. - by Dave Johnson, ISHN Editor