Michael Cudahy was born in 1924 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His father, John, was the son of Patrick Cudahy, a wealthy owner of a meat packing company. Unfortunately, due to Irish tradition, the vast majority of the family fortune went to John's eldest brother, Michael.
Michael's father was a well respected attorney in the city and became close friends with a lot of politicians. One of his friends was James Farley, who served as Postmaster General under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Farley convinced John to become the United States Ambassador to Poland.
The family moved to Warsaw in the early 1932 and lived at the embassy there. Michael found it difficult to make friends due to the language barrier, but he became quite a nuisance to the staff members. On one occasion, he disassembled a turntable in the embassy out of curiosity. On another occasion, he fashioned an explosive cigarette and gave it to a Polish general, who had it explode in his face. The incident made the local news and established Michael as an official brat.
In 1934, the family returned to Milwaukee for a short while and Michael developed his interest in electronics and technology. He credits his grandfather, Harrison Reed, for showing him how to use machine tools and the type of mindset required to repair things. Michael began tinkering around at home and invented some creative things, for example a light that was switched on with a pressure switch. He also invented a way to turn on his radio and pull off the bedsheets with a motor when the alarm clock went off. One time, while disassembling his father's pocket watch, disaster struck when parts flew out of it and he found himself unable to put it back together. Luckily, his mother came to his aid and they had the watch repaired before his father came home.
In 1937, Michael's father was appointed ambassador to Ireland and the family moved to live in the embassy in Dublin. While there, Michael met someone named Paddy McCormack, who had a HAM radio. Michael became absolutely fascinated by the radio and built his own at the embassy. Being able to talk to people around the world was like a dream to him. One day, while attempting to increase the power of his antenna on the roof of the embassy, he fell onto the skylight and broke through, luckily without any injuries.
In 1939, the family returned to Milwaukee again and his father was sent to serve as the ambassador to Belgium. At that time, Hitler was directing the initial phases of the invasion of Europe and it was John's job to communicate Hitler's actions directly to the United States. When Hitler invaded Belgium in 1940, John returned to Milwaukee and began working as a reporter for Life Magazine.
Towards the end of 1941, at the start of the United States' involvement in World War 2, Michael was drafted into Army's Air Corps. Basic training in Lincoln, Nebraska was quite torturous for him since he had grown up in a pretty leisurely lifestyle. Shortly after starting, he was recalled to Milwaukee to learn that his father had died in a horse riding accident. The incident had a profound effect on Michael and he described it as the time when he realized it was time to "grow up".
After completing basic training, he applied for and was accepted in the Truax Field Radio School in Madison, Wisconsin. His aptitude in radio communication was so high that the Army hired him as a teacher before he was transferred to Chanute Field in Rantoul, Illinois to be trained in RADAR technology. There, he also received high marks and was hired to teach classes. He continued to teach throughout the war, but found himself lacking in the area of money.
To get more money, Michael decided to start a business that involved sneaking women in and out of the military base in the trunk of his car. He charged a premium price for this service and it was used quite frequently. He also used his car as a bus service to Milwaukee and made a decent amount of money.
After the war, he returned to Milwaukee and began wondering what he would do with the rest of his life. He met a woman named Mary Lee and married her in 1947. They had a daughter, Susie, in 1948, but he felt overly confined in his marriage. He longed for the freedom granted by being a bachelor and divorced her in 1950. Later that year, he moved to New York City with another man's wife, but she later returned to Milwaukee to live with her husband.
Michael found work at NBC's Radio City, working as a sound technician. He lived with a man named Dick Chenery in Manhattan and they would frequently throw open house parties. With the advent of magnetic tape recordings, Michael got the idea of putting background music in planes. He sold the idea to Presto Recording Company and soon found himself making trips to airlines to sell the product.
Some time after, he was contacted by a man named Warren Cozzens who represented a railroad company and was interested in the background music technology. The two became close friends and Michael moved to Evanstown, Illinois to work for him. Eventually, they decided to start a company as a partnership that would make RF signal generators. The company would be based in Milwaukee and they named it Marquette Electronics.
The first product of Marquette Electronics was a sound synthesizer for usage by musicians. It was designed as a pedal board that would play different bass notes and could be played at the same time as a piano or keyboard. Unfortunately, the end product was too expensive for musicians to purchase and only one "T-BASS" was sold.
Luckily, their next idea would be more successful. Cozzens received a call from a doctor who had the idea of building a central ElectroCardioGraph machine that would save hospitals time and money. Cudahy and Cozzens bought their first office building and set to work building their machine. After hiring some additional help and a lot of tinkering around, they managed to complete the project and deliver it to their first hospital on December 1, 1964.
Unfortunately, the machine did not work at all upon delivery. It actually took another year before it was finally in tune, but not all was well. 3M engineers had been coming to the hospital and poking around the machine. Later, at the American Heart Association Exposition, Marquette Electronics presented its EKG along with 3M, but fortunately the 3M machine did not work at all and the doctors instead became interested in Marquette's product.
Soon the company was making hundreds of millions of dollars every year and employing thousands of people. Michael continued to work closely with the company and its customers to find out what products the medical field really needed. The company became known for its innovative products that made it increasingly easy for doctors to find out what was wrong with their patients and monitor them after treatment.
As CEO, Cudahy exercised his position in a most unusual manner. Part of his management philosophy was to develop trust in his employees. As a result, he made it a point to get to know every one of his employees and make them feel comfortable around him. Neckties were absent from the company in favor of more casual attire such as shorts and sandals.
Mike also allowed the construction of a daycare facility on-site, making Marquette the first company to do it in the state of Wisconsin. He also made alcoholic beverages available at all times to employees, explaining that it represented his trust in the employees. The company also frequently held plays and other fun activities to increase morale and make everyone feel more at home.
As the 1990s arrived, Mike was beginning to fear for the future of his company. He sought proteges to take over for him, but failed to find any individuals that would work. Towards the end of the decade, he began looking for other companies to merge with his. His favorite choice was General Electric and he contacted Jeffrey Immelt, then leader of GE Medical Systems, to discuss the merger. In late 1998, the deal was sealed after a meeting with GE CEO Jack Welch in New York City. GE agreed to pay nearly twice the market value for Marquette stock and all of the stockholders became rich.
Unfortunately, Cudahy began to realize that his baby, Marquette Electronics, would never be the same under different leadership. When GE took over, many of the long time employees left since they couldn't handle the changes. Despite initial promises to preserve the company's policies, such as beer drinking and an extremely casual atmosphere, GE made a lot of changes that irreversibly changed the atmosphere.
In 2001, Cudahy formed the Cudahy Trust Foundation with the goal of donating money intelligently to local charities and needy organizations. He proceeded to donate millions of dollars to organizations like the YMCA, Boys and Girls Club, Marquette University, and the Milwaukee School of Engineering. He has also become a board member of numerous other companies since his retreat from Marquette.