November 29th, 2021
Austin Guirlinger, the successful entrepreneur who helped pioneer the modular housing industry that introduced many Americans to the concept of professionally managed residential communities and commercial properties, died peacefully in his Deland, Fla. home on November 27th. He was 95.
At its apex in the late 1980s, Guirlinger’s company, Cardinal Industries, was the leading manufacturer of modular housing in the United States, with headquarters in Columbus, Ohio, five manufacturing plants and 12,000 employees. Cardinal boasted well over 100,000 units and 1,000 properties in states east of the Mississippi, deploying and managing the innovative modules in a wide array of uses, ranging from communities of affordable, high-quality apartments, senior housing and single-family homes to motel chains, including Knights Inn and Arborgate Inn.
Guirlinger’s desire to do things his way marked both his professional and personal lives. Born in Detroit in 1926 and growing up in a family of nine children, Guirlinger received permission to leave high school early to take a job in Alaska. Before deciding to return home, he enlisted in the Army in September 1944, training in California before serving in Japan for the remainder of the war. After the war, Guirlinger returned to Detroit, where he observed the auto industry’s assembly line methods and envisioned using the same techniques for building almost an entire single-family home on a modern production line—everything from the wooden frame and roof to carpeted flooring and electrical and plumbing systems.
During the same period, he met his wife, the late Donlyn (Baird), who would become not only his spouse, mother of their 6 children, but also a beloved figure among Cardinal employees and the inspiration for the company’s highly acclaimed property landscaping program.
He founded Cardinal as a building components manufacturer in 1954. Over the 35-plus years of Cardinal’s history, he realized his dream as fully assembled Cardinal modules became a popular choice for prospective apartment dwellers in a growing number of markets. Later, prospective homeowners found they could purchase an energy-efficient, durable, attractive, detached single-family home—the quintessence of the American dream, all based on the same 12-foot by 24-foot modules.
The height of Cardinal’s success in the 1980s brought national and local media acclaim for its industry leadership, entrepreneurship, innovation, and rapid growth. During this period, Cardinal routinely landed on Forbes magazine’s annual list of the 400 largest private companies and attracted praise from multiple U.S. presidents, governors and state and community leaders.
“The results,” the self-assured Guirlinger once said, “are exactly what I expected.”
Guirlinger insisted on getting to know his employees and treating them like family. One former colleague recited one of Guirlinger’s leadership mantras: “You respect the people you work with; you give them the right tools and treat them the way they wanted to be treated. He’d want all of us to care about people and treat them with respect.”
Guirlinger met his future wife in Indiana while she was performing in “The Hormel Girls,” a famous all-female orchestra that toured the country post-World War II promoting Hormel meat products and entertaining music fans. His interest piqued, he slipped “Donie” his phone number. When the touring band arrived to play in Detroit weeks later, Guirlinger began courting his future bride.
He recalled: “We spent about a week together and I chased her around to a couple of towns where she was playing, but finally she had to go to California and it was too far for me to drive. At that point, we’d only been together maybe 10 days at the most.” Later that year, “I went to my sister’s wedding and my brother-in- law asked when I was going to get married. I said, ‘The girl I’m going to marry is in California.’ They said, ‘Go get her,’ and I said, ‘I think I will.’”
As their household grew to six children, the couple stayed very busy managing a growing business and family. Despite increasing demands of Cardinal’s rapid expansion, the couple always found time for family adventures, of which there were many. Donlyn Guirlinger passed away in 1996.
After Cardinal closed its doors in 1990, Guirlinger launched a new venture, Central Modular Systems, Inc. (CMS), based in DeLand, Fla., which developed multi-family housing using many of the same business practices and manufacturing techniques that Cardinal had perfected. The family still manages residential properties in Florida and Ohio through another affiliate, Central Management Company. Family members said although Austin Guirlinger had stepped back from daily involvement in the family business, he regularly dropped by the office to check in and offer input.
Throughout his career, Guirlinger was always grateful for his hard-won success and never missed an opportunity to help others in need. Many individuals, cultural organizations and charities have benefitted from his generosity, a commitment he carried through his final days.
Guirlinger is survived by five children: Linda Peattie, of Altamonte Springs, Fla; Robert (Bob) Guirlinger, of DeLand, Fla; Glenda (Ginny) Litzelfelner, of Reynoldsburg, Ohio; Edward (Jerry) Guirlinger, of New Albany, Ohio; and Zoe Guirlinger, of New Albany, Ohio. He leaves 13 grandchildren and 6 great-grandchildren.
Services are scheduled for December 8th, 2021 starting at 1:00 pm at Lankford Funeral Home in DeLand, FL. The family requests that instead of flowers, those so inclined may make a donation in his name to a charity of their choosing.