- Historic Sites
The General Of General Motors
"Billy" Durant typified the courage of American business. He was charismatic, arbitrary and impenetrable.
August 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 5
On March 18, 1947, at 2:15 A.M. , William Crapo Durant, founder of General Motors and Chevrolet and the “leading bull” in the great stock-market boom and crash of the late 1920’s, died at his New York City apartment with his wife and nurse in attendance. His last fortune had evaporated in the Depression of the 1930’s, and he had been an invalid for several years. People were already beginning to confuse him with Will Durant, the popular historian of philosophy. Within a few weeks Henry Ford, whose automotive career strikingly paralleled Durant’s, was to die too—rich and famous but also ridiculed and despised. “Billy “Durant, on the other hand, left a public image that was clouded but untarnished. A eulogy in the Detroit Free Press said : “There was nothing of the ruthless pirate in Durant for all of his financial manipulations. Despite his fortunes and his power he was always a simple, human person, with a consciousness of the problems of the little fellow. … W. C. Durant typified the courage of American business, of free enterprise and initiative. If all of his principles are no longer acceptable, there are elements in his character that America badly needs today.”
Those better acquainted with Durant knew he was not “a simple, human person. ” The man they remembered was a riddle. He projected a confusing, contradictory image to the world, and underlying the image were unfathomed depths. Durant had few intimate friends and did not encourage familiarity. The diminutive “Billy” was rarely used in his presence. Even to close associates he was “Mr. Durant,” while subordinates referred to him as “the boss” or “the Man.”
The short but indomitable creator of business empires was understandably dubbed Napoleonic by the press. This tag described aptly as well Durant’s charismatic charm and his tendencies to be visionary, arbitrary, and impenetrable. One of the few bankers sympathetic to Durant probably sketched best his strengths and weaknesses: “Durant is a genius, and therefore not to be dealt with on the same basis as ordinary business men. In many respects he is a child in emotions, intemperament, and in mental balance, yet possessed of wonderful energy and ability along certain other well-defined lines.” Even associates who liked and respected Durant as a person found this combination of traits difficult. Walter P. Chrysler, who began his automotive career at Buick, related: “I cannot hope to find words to express the charm of the man. … He could coax a bird right down out of a tree, I think. I remember the first time my wife and I entered his home. The walls were hung with magnificent tapestries. I had never experienced luxury to compare with Billy Durant’s house. In five minutes he had me feeling as if I owned the place. ” But Chrysler resigned after only three years because he was frustrated by Durant’s unpredictability and interference in Buick’s operations. Chrysler knew they could never work together when Durant told him, “Walt, I believe in changing the Dolicies iust as often as mv office door ooens and closes. ”
Durant’s dual personality was also noted by Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., who ultimately built Durant’s brain child, General Motors, into the world’s leading manufacturer of motor vehicles. Durant, said Sloan, had “a salesman’s enthusiasm” and “tried to carry everything in his head. When some thought flashed through his mind he was disposed to act on it forthwith, and rarely troubled to consult with the man who had the real responsibility. … Yet even when this sort of interference struck as a lightning bolt into your own department, you did not protest, because he was so sweet natured, so well intentioned. It was just Billy Durant’s way. You accepted it, and perhaps liked it because you liked him.”
In temperament Durant often seemed less like a businessman than a musician or an actor. He had a passion for classical music, especially opera, and he exhibited impeccable taste in furnishing Raymere, his show-place home at Deal, New Jersey. In contrast with his tendency to make business decisions involving millions of dollars on the spur of the moment, he spent hours personally designing the Buick and Chevrolet emblems. He was so moved by good theatre that he once had to leave abruptly after breaking into uncontrollable tears while watching Raymond Massey portray Lincoln.
At heart an actor himself, Durant scorned statistics, hard evidence, and logic in playing his entrepreneurial role. He relied instead on intuition and imagination, and his personal relationships were less cerebral than emotional. His strong drive to achieve was matched by an equally unquenchable need for approval and an intense loyalty to significant others. He protected himself by avoiding deep friendships while maintaining a surface affability to all and by being generous with money to the point of eccentricity. This kept most relationships formal and put them on a cash-in-advance, you-owe-me basis. Durant never dickered over price, and the salaries he paid were often exorbitant. Before Walter P. Chrysler could ask for fifty thousand dollars a year, Durant offered him five hundred thousand.
Incorruptible by money himself, Durant should have known that he could not buy true approval, loyalty, and affection. He was ultimately undone by trusting the yes men whose good will came cheap and then trying to protect the cronies who had gone along in his ventures.