Power Is The Prize

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Inevitably, as the company in the 1930’s drifted toward third place, behind General Motors and Chrysler, and lost the reputation for benevolence which Henry Ford had given it in the era of the five-dollar day, people cast about for a simple explanation. They decided that the malevolent influence of a few men, and especially Bennett, was responsible. The struggle for a place of power near Henry’s throne involved most of the high executives, and, as one by one various men fell before Bennett, they also attributed the company’s troubles to “the little fella” in his tightly guarded basement office.

This simplification of a complex set of forces satisfied the desire of people to find a villain in the plot, giving them a handy “devil theory” of Ford decline. But it ignored the fact that from the beginning until 1946 the company had only one master, Henry Ford. Moreover, it overlooked the unusual set of circumstances which from the late 1930’s permitted Bennett to reach for power.

Foremost among them was the failure to create a modern corporate system of administration that could guide the company expertly through style changes, the labor problems of the Depression, the growth of government controls, and the Second World War. No man had done more than Henry Ford to concentrate industrial power and accelerate production. Yet no leader in manufacturing had clung more stubbornly to an antiquated administrative system totally unequal to the demands of the new era. The family business under one-man domination, typical of the era before 1860, had become old-fashioned with the rise of great modern corporations. The most successful industrialists were men who, like Rockefeller and Carnegie, took partners with brains and force comparable to their own, and adopted every improved managerial device.

Ford distrusted independent-minded executives, and got rid of them abruptly. He was unhappy with men who thought primarily of the company’s social values and its responsibilities to the community and workers. He disliked university men and experts of every category. Organization, form-keeping, and the steady pooling of brains and experience were all repugnant to him. Every decision had to be made by Henry Ford himself, or be subject to his approval or veto.

Ford was constitutionally so unable to relinquish or delegate authority that even when he gave the presidency to Edsel for the long period 1919-1943 he in no way really surrendered the scepter. As long as he remained vigorous, showing flashes of intuitive genius, he could keep his archaic administrative mechanism creakily effective. But as he neared eighty his first stroke portended a clear physical and mental decline, and beginning in 1943, as Bennett tells us, he “began going downhill” rather sharply. Hope of continuing vigor vanished. Instead, another kind of hope arose in the mind of Sorensen, and above all, in that of Bennett.

By 1939 any discerning observer would have pronounced the company in danger of becoming unsuccessful and would have noted a decline in its reputation. This would have been the fact whether Harry Bennett had been in the company or not. The cold, ruthless head of the security force was a protean figure, but above all an opportunist. His rise to palace power, culminating in a thrust for supreme authority at the end of the war, was not the product of a Hitlerian plot laid down in a Mein Kampf outline early in his career and then remorselessly executed. Rather, he found a situation ripe for his abilities, and exploited it with dexterity and determination. Like the musician he was, he played by ear, turning every opportunity to his own advantage, until he came as close to mastery over a billion-dollar corporation as Aaron Burr came to mastery of the Presidency—and that, as every schoolboy knows, was within inches.

In 1939 Bennett, only forty-seven, was at the height of his powers. He had risen in the school of hard knocks, and Ford undoubtedly admired his self-made quality. His strenuous naval career had done far more to shape him than his brief training in Detroit and Cleveland art schools. In a seven years’ enlistment he had been stoker, seaman, diver, bandsman, and cartoonist, meanwhile becoming an adept boxer, a robust group leader, and an initiate in the undercover work of Naval Intelligence. It is evident that from the moment Ford followed his statement, “I can use a young man like you out at the Rouge,” with the question, “Can you shoot?” Henry was intent on testing him for some kind of plant police activity.

For all his restless devil-may-care qualities, Bennett knew the value of discipline, and was as ready to take buffets from his one superior as to administer punishment to others. That he had only one superior, Henry made clear. Sending him to the Rouge plant, Ford said: “There may be a lot of people over there who want to fire you, but don’t pay any attention to them. I’m the only one who can fire you.”

This simple understanding lasted for nearly thirty years. Contrary to many statements that he never went on the company payroll, Bennett was placed there on August 23, 1915, and remained there. While he asserts that for twenty-eight of his thirty years with Ford he got “peanuts for a salary,” it was said that the paymaster always kept a large sum in cash—first $10,000, then $25,000—available to him for special expenses, and he tells us that “Mr. Ford maintained my homes for me.” An informed guess puts his wage in 1940 at $1,500-$1,600 a month with occasional bonuses.