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He invented modern mass production. He gave the world the first people’s car, and his countrymen loved him for it. But at the moment of his greatest triumph, he turned on the empire he had built—and on the son who would inherit it.
October/November 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 6
Probably no major industrial company in America’s history was ever run so poorly for so long. By the beginning of 1946, it was estimated, Ford was losing $10 million a month. The chaos was remarkable, but some of it, at least, was deliberate. The old Henry Ford hated the government and in particular the federal income tax, and by creating utter clerical confusion he hoped to baffle the 1RS. He also hated bookkeepers and accountants; as far as he was concerned, they were parasitical. When Arjay Miller, who later became president of the company, joined Ford in 1946, he was told to get the profit forecast for the next month. Miller went down to the Rotunda, where the financial operations were centralized, or at least supposed to be. There he found a long table with a lot of older men, who looked to him like stereotypes of the old-fashioned bookkeeper. These men were confronted by bills, thousands of bills, and they were dividing them into categories—A, B, C, D. The piles were immense, some several feet high. To Miller’s amazement the bookkeepers were actually estimating how many million dollars there were per foot of paper. That was the system.
Edsel’s widow threatened to sell her company stock unless old Henry moved aside and turned over the company to his grandson, Henry II.
Miller asked what the estimates for the following month’s profits were. One of the men working there looked at him and asked, “What do you want them to be?”
“What?” asked Miller.
“I can make them anything you want.” He meant it, Miller decided. It was truly a never-never land.
It was not surprising, then, that the young Henry Ford, seeking to bring sense to the madness he found all around him, turned to an entirely new breed of executive—the professional managers, the bright, young financial experts who knew, if not automobiles and manufacturing plants, then systems and bottom lines. To them Henry Ford II gave nearly unlimited power. And they, in turn, would in the years to come visit their own kind of devastation on the company. The legacy of what the old man had done in his last thirty years left a strain of tragic unreason in the inner workings of the company. So, once again did the past influence the future. For the past was always present.