Epilogue: Al Schiff engineered career to put family first

Published July 19 2018
Updated July 22 2018

TAMPA — In a lifetime of remarkable accomplishments, executive engineer Alfred "Al" Schiff considered his family life to be the greatest accomplishment of all.

A pioneer of the industrial controls industry, Mr. Schiff integrated the expertise of an engineer, U.S. Air Force pilot and sailor into the strengths of a husband, father and mentor.

"A few people are great at business, a few are great technologists. A few are great at giving back to the community and a few are devoted to family," said Ned Schiff, the youngest of his three sons.

"Dad was that somewhat rare blend of analytical and artistic who are great at all four of those things."

Mr. Schiff, 86, died at his south Tampa home July 10. He is survived by his wife of 64 years, Rose Schiff, sons Brian, Gordon and Ned, and 10 grandchildren.

"He was just an unbelievably positive person," Ned said. "I asked my brother the other day if he could remember dad ever complaining about anything.

"He thought about it and finally said, "‘Maybe the Cleveland Indians pitching staff.’"

Sailing, both recreationally and racing competitively, exemplified Mr. Schiff’s calm and steady guidance.

"He wanted to maximize his family time, so sailing was something you could all do together without distraction," Ned said. "And the family name, Schiff, means ship in German."

The University of Rochester grad repaid a ROTC scholarship by serving in the U.S. Air Force, rising to the rank of captain. Then he jump-started his career at Reliance Electric designing a critical orbital tracking control system for early space missions. He went on to develop solid state motor drives for the paper and steel industries.

When Reliance acquired Toledo Scale, Mr. Schiff oversaw the multinational company’s transformation from purely mechanical to electronic technology. He was especially proud to receive a Presidential "E" Award for significantly expanding U.S. exports, an honor bestowed by the late astronaut, Sen. John Glenn and the Department of Commerce.

Exxon acquired Reliance and Toledo Scale in 1979 and Mr. Schiff was soon named chief operating officer of Gilbarco, a gas station technology provider based in Greensboro, N.C.

"He did some really unique things," Ned said. "Like open houses for families to come see what they were doing and art shows at the plant.

"A lot of his success — growing their market share to 50 percent worldwide — came from changing the culture not only business-wise, but by teambuilding, from the janitor to the CEO."

Once asked by an interviewer how others might describe him, the Cleveland native replied, "loaded with ideas, hard driving but fair and supportive."

His two favorite words, he said: It’s working.

He never met a problem, concurred Ned, "just opportunities that needed solutions."

Upon retiring from Exxon and moving to Tampa in 1987, where the Schiffs had long owned a second home, he formed Schiff & Associates to help small technology businesses grow.

The couple stepped up as benefactors of the Florida Orchestra, the Straz Center For the Performing Arts, Opera Tampa, Sarasota Opera, Asolo Theater and public broadcast station WEDU. He was integral to the investment committee of the TOP Jewish Foundation, serving Tampa-Orlando-Pinellas communities.

"Al was thoughtful and forward thinking, always recommending improvements to enhance individual investors’ funds as well as helping to secure the future of the Jewish and non-Jewish organizations that TOP serves," said board member Bonnie Wise, Chief Financial Administrator of Hillsborough County.

Mr. Schiff’s board leadership at Tampa’s Museum of Science & Industry resulted in a $38 million expansion, including building Florida’s first IMAX theater.

With no connection to the University of South Florida, he served on the USF Foundation Board and chaired the USF College of Engineering Advisory Board (2002 to 2006), earning a Lifetime Achievement Engineering Excellence Award in April. The Al and Rose Schiff conference room in the USF complex is named for them.

"His actions were louder than his words," Ned said. "He inspired people to do more than they ever thought they could."

Contact Amy Scherzer at (813) 226-3332 or email her at ascherzer@tampabay.com