Is "Ford Tough" Enough?
No matter the height of the mountaintop, you can always dig the deepest valley on the other side
Some people are born with talent. Some people are born at a convenient time to utilize their talent. Others are born at the perfect time to use (or abuse) their talent. Enter Henry Ford.
Born in 1863 to a immigrant farming family in Springwells Township, Michigan, Henry's father was a first generation Irish immigrant and his mother a first generation Belgian. His father, after living overseas, could hardly fathom that in America you could purchase land as your own. He worked the farm tirelessly and expected Henry to carry on his work when he passed. Ford has different ideas.
At 13 he was gifted a pocket watch. He immediately set out to dismantle the watch to learn its inner workings. He would go on to repair watches for classmates and not charge a penny. He genuinely enjoyed working on machines. This would characterize his love for machine design he'd exhibit his entire life.
At 16 he journeyed to Detroit where he served as an apprentice machinist and held a few other jobs in which he could work with engines and machines and build needed experience.
At 19 he came back to work the farm. Over the next 9 years he spent there he realized his calling as he worked on engines when he could and worked the farm at the same time. He had to make it somewhere else. So after roughly 9 years of work, he journeyed back to Detroit where he would serve as an engineer for a hero of his at Edison Illuminating Company of Detroit, where he would be promoted to chief engineer in 2 years.
He worked on his passions, engines and vehicles, all the while as he worked. He built his first car in 1892 and had built 4 more by 1896. Most cars on the road at the time were symbols of luxury, something very few Americans could afford at the turn of the century. While a handy craftsman and engineer, it wasn't a futuristic design or scientific breakthrough induced engine that would set Ford apart. Ford envisioned a car for everyone in America, something affordable to the public. This was the true genius. The world wouldn't be the same with the arrival of the Model T.
It was a brilliant idea. It was simple. The average owner could fix an issue, it was high enough it could pass easily over the developing roads in the nation. It was an instant hit. The biggest problem Ford would face would be meeting the numbers necessary for orders. Another aspect of Ford's genius came into play. He was absolutely obsessed with efficiency, and through this obsession he brought about modern manufacturing in the assembly line.
To break the process down into the smallest of parts to make the whole is the gist, as I'm sure you can guess. Through this, you minimize the responsibility (and necessary skill, and thereby, the value) of the position and still come to the same end with the product. Before Ford's innovation, it would take roughly thirteen hours to make a car. By the end of January 1913, it could be completed two hours and thirty-eight minutes. After the invention of the Assembly line, it was an hour and a half.
His success was staggering. In 1914, half of the cars sold in America were Fords, and that number was reached with 1/5th of the employees in the other half of the industry. He had 48 percent of the market. In 1915 the company was making $100 million annually in sales.
Ford eventually created his own manufacturing epicenter in the Rouge, where all materials for the Model T could be found and produced in-house. It was a paradise for the industrial revolution. Ford also revolutionized pay for workers, instituting 5 dollars a day for Ford employees, doubling existing pay. It should be noted that the real reason behind this was economical. The turnover rate at the time was 380 percent, the company was losing more money in the loss of manpower than to double earnings.
Ford was a great celebrity and was loved in Detroit. Reporters hung on his every word. Things couldn't get much better.
And they didn't. In fact, they got much worse.
You can characterize the creative license that Ford gave his engineers and designers by a single quote. "Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black."
Culture starts at the top. And as we'll see from Henry Ford, it can rot from the top too.
Henry turned over the presidency of the Ford Motor Company to his son Edsel in 1918. However, he retained final say in decisions and often worked against his son in preference to his yes-men. He was cruel to those in top management, giving two men the same job title, not telling either, and watch the two fight it out to see who was the "weaker man."
Management at one point was chose for savvy and ability. More and more it seemed they were chosen for brute strength. It was common to see foreman physically accost workers if they were seen loitering.
The company lost its creativity, as all those who sought to improve the Model T we're often humiliated or forced out. What was once a hub for sharp engineers became stagnant as Ford resisted innovation. Sycophants were given preference at Ford, and free-thinkers were harassed and forced out. Ford would not tolerate any dissent or criticism, and often targeted those with leadership ability and bullied them as often as possible. GM and other competitors made in-roads into the market as the talent from Ford sought opportunities elsewhere.
He constantly worked against his son in his older years. The yes-men before meetings with Ford would say they would have Edsel's back, but abandon him in the moment of confrontation with his father. In a particularly cruel move, after Edsel and the companies chief engineer had designed a six cylinder engine (believing they had Henry's say so, but he hated the idea of a six cylinder engine) to help move the company forward, Henry had the engine put on a conveyor belt to the scrap head in front of the pair and warned them to never try that again.
Ford was actively destroying his company in his old age. He would fire bookkeepers for simply existing, refused to believe World War II existed, and had his son actively harassed by thugs. Edsel would die at 49 before his father of stomach cancer.
After initially having the illusion of being a friend of the working man early on, in his later years he actively fought that title. He said during the Great Depression that the only problem with the Depression was that it might not last long enough, because people might not learn enough from it. He used guns and batons to put down labor marches. Security at Ford was so brutal that workers wore masks, so they wouldn't be identified during marches. He fought unions so hard that it was inevitable that if (and when) they won, there would never be a true alliance.
Ford hated the federal income tax, and made his book keeping as confusing as possible. Receipts were divided into piles and weighed to determine their value. Some of the piles were several feet high. The company by 1946 was losing $10 million a month.
For all his hard work and ingenuity, Ford's final reputation would feature arrogance, a stagnant creative streak, and cruelty towards employees and his son. He reached a mountain top unseen at the time and revolutionized America and primed it to become global power and industrial center it would be in the coming years. At the same time, he would sponsor numerous anti-Semitic editorials and eventually receive a representative of Hitler in his own home. Heinrich Himmler, a main architect of the Holocaust said of Ford, " (he's) one of our most valuable, important, and witty fighters". Ford is also the only American mentioned in Mein Kampf, which some would argue, isn't the book you'd want to be mentioned in. A convicted Hitler youth at the Nuremburg Trials said of one of Ford's anti-Semitic editorials:
"The decisive anti-Semitic book I was reading and the book that influenced my comrades was ... that book by Henry Ford, The International Jew. I read it and became anti-Semitic. The book made a great influence on myself and my friends because we saw in Henry Ford the representative of success and also the representative of a progressive social policy"
When I think about the ideal leader, he isn't usually quoted by Hitler youth. Ford had an amazing idea, work ethic, and business acumen. At least initially. But he was almost poisoned by his own success as his identity became tied to the Model T. He would go on to lose respect, market shares, and most important of all, his son. If we're going to be leaders, let's learn a lesson from Henry Ford.
Sure, hard work and genius pays off. But poor leadership and ethics demand a bill that no amount of the former could deliver.
Let's also stay out of Mein Kampf.
Good luck this week!
Jake Smith is an engineer, son, athlete, scholar, corn chip connoisseur, lover, and "a stand up cat". You can reach him email@example.com