Sunday, January 15, 2012

The People's Tycoon by Steven Watts *****

Around 100 years ago Henry Ford had an idea that made him a billionaire. Today's business folks (aka Republicans) seem to have forgotten the concept entirely: "The people who consume the bulk of the goods [and services] are the people who make them. That is a fact we must never forget - that is the secret of our prosperity," and, I add, the antithesis of "trickle-down" economics.

This and so much else is included in the recent Henry Ford biography, The People's Tycoon, by Steven Watts. Though it's not mentioned or implied, Henry Ford's life reads like a dyslexic with Asperger's Syndrome. Ford didn't read and probably couldn't - given the opportunity to read in a court trial, he refused. His staff learned to that he preferred to hear their ideas, and probably wouldn't read them anyway. This aversion to reading included mechanical/architectural drawings, where the successful presented their boss with scale models.

While this theoretical dyslexia might have been a drawback, the possible Asperger's, like that of many successful entrepreneurs, perhaps even the Republican front-runner (written in January 2011), allowed Ford to push forward his business with little regard to family, associates, and employees. For example, Ford Motor Company, was his third automotive start-up. In all three cases, he pushed forward with no regard for his partners, who either lost their investment when the enterprise failed, or were forced out when the enterprise was a success.

While he was undoubtedly a mechanical genius, outside the development labs, he managed his company with a reign of chaos, pitting managers against managers, embarrassing and belittling his family members, and hiring thugs that terrorized everyone.

In his public life he championed a wide range of causes including promotion of 19th-century Victorian values and lifestyles - in sharp contrast to his own life which included many estares with all the modern conveniences, usually including a private power plant, and a long-term mistress living on an estate nearby. His also funded a cruise to Europe to prevent World War I, and extensive antisemitic publications and activities.

On numerous occasions FMC went against public opinion, such as when Henry Ford refused to abandon the obsolete Model-T or join the war efforts. In these cases, the company finally came around. In Ford's later years, the author ascribes this independent behavior to oncoming dementia, but this pattern of ignoring people seems to have been a constant from the beginning.

I found book to be comprehensive and fascinating. Though the author's intent was clearly to be positive, the undertone was certainly dark and dangerous. The always brief mentions of emotional and physical pain caused by Ford's actions and inactions seemed to be just the tip of an iceberg of a darkness that was funded by Ford's millions.

Overall an excellent books, that explained everything, except how did this insensitive person become one of the richest and most influential people of the 20th century? Or maybe that is the explanation...

No comments: