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The attitude and vision of Henry Ford

June 2, 2014

Some 118 years ago this week – on June 4, 1896 – Henry Ford first drove his Quadricycle from the workshop behind his home at 58 Bagley Avenue, Detroit. It was the first automobile he had ever designed or driven. Named for its four bicycle tyres, the Quadricycle used an ethanol-powered two-cylinder engine that achieved a top speed of 20 mph.

The Quadricycle was the outcome of many years of passion for everything mechanical, from watches to industrial machines, and perseverance in experimenting with portable engines, but when Ford and James Bishop, his chief assistant, attempted to wheel the Quadricycle out of the shed, they had overlooked one detail – they discovered that it was too wide to fit through the door, so Ford took an axe to the brick wall of the shed, smashing it to make space for the vehicle to be rolled out.

With Bishop bicycling ahead to alert passing carriages and pedestrians, Ford drove the vehicle down Grand River Avenue, circling around three major roads. The Quadricycle had two driving speeds, no reverse, no brakes, rudimentary steering ability and a doorbell button as a horn. Aside from one breakdown on Washington Boulevard due to a faulty spring, the drive was a success, and Ford was on his way to becoming one of the most formidable stories in business history.

Before Ford was an industrialist, he was a tinkerer in his backyard workshop trying to make an experimental technology into something marketable. There is a prophetic story of how the 13-year-old Henry Ford got a pocket watch for his birthday, and then proceeded to take it apart. He simply wanted to know how it worked. It was a character trait that marked the rest of his life. He wanted to know how things worked and, just as important, why they didn’t work.

Ford was working as chief engineer for the Edison Illuminating Company when he began working on the Quadricycle. On call to ensure that Detroit had electrical service 24 hours a day, Ford was able to use his flexible working schedule to experiment with his pet project. Only three Quadricycles were built, Ford sold his earliest prototype shortly after testing for $200, and it took him three more years to build a second, and another two years to build a third.

Meeting Thomas Edison in 1896, and encouraged by the legendary innovator, Ford continued to experiment with automotive design, and he left his employer to move from prototyping to business. His first venture was the Detroit Automotive Company, which made only 20 trucks and went bust. Returning to prototyping, he built and successfully raced a new car, which won him the backing of investors for a second venture, the Henry Ford Company. But disagreement with his main investor led Ford to leave the company bearing his name, to form a new partnership called Ford & Malcomson Ltd.

This came close to financial collapse too, before being reincorporated as the Ford Motor Company on June 16, 1903. However, it would take another five years of passion and perseverance to launch on October 1, 1908, Model T, the first real commercial success. But what a success!

Henry and his team-borrowed concepts from watchmakers, gun makers, bicycle makers, and meat packers, mixed them with their own ideas, and by 1918 half of all American cars were Model T, with 15.5m sold by the time production ended on May 27, 1927.

One famous innovation for which Ford is given credit, the assembly line, had actually been around for a century since Eli Whitney’s cotton gin. It was William Klann, not Ford, who brought the assembly line into Ford Motor Company after viewing the ‘disassembly line’ of a Chicago slaughterhouse and where animals were butchered as they moved along a conveyor.

Called a ‘moving assembly line’, it was used to increase the production rate of the Model T and enabled it to be assembled in 93 minutes. But workers objected to the never-ending, repetitive work on the new line. Turnover was so high that the company had to hire 53,000 people a year to keep 14,000 jobs filled.

Obviously, Ford’s success was far from instant. Years of hard work preceded his accomplishments. He worked in a machine shop, he worked evenings repairing watches, and was a night shift foreman in an electricity generating plant. Even when Ford finally decided to follow his entrepreneurial bent, he had difficulties taking his engineering passion into commercial success.

But the commercial failures were as important as his engineering successes. Ford looked to create a product that satisfied his customers’ needs using existing components and processes where possible. Ford didn’t invent automobiles, at the time there were 50 US firms which manufactured and sold cars, mostly to wealthy customers as high end luxuries, which were generally expensive to purchase and difficult to maintain.

Ford famously said, ‘If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses’. Ford had conversations with prospective customers who were clear about their daily frustrations with their transportation options. As a result, Ford developed an intuitive understanding that many people wanted faster horses to do practical jobs like getting to and from town quicker so more work could be done on the farm.

He identified a job the car could perform for non-consumers which was fundamentally different than the job for which most early cars were being built. Rather than competing with the market leaders, Ford was led by customers to develop a simpler, cheaper, more convenient productivity tool.

Ford had been up and down in the automotive industry for a long time, from which he developed a deep base of informed intuition. He had a clear insight into the needs of an emerging market of low-end customers. Thus what was most innovative about Henry Ford was not a new technology or even a new assembly process, but an insight into the needs of an emerging market of customers for which he created a powerful, new business model.

So the key lesson, and Ford’s legacy, is that it is vision for the customer that moved him from inventor to businessman to innovator. He hired a brilliant accountant called Norval Hawkins as his sales manager, and Hawkins created a sales organisation and advertising campaign that fueled potential customers’ appetites for Fords. This turned the automobile into a true innovation available to a wide audience. By the 1920s, largely as a result of the Model T’s success, the term ‘passenger car’ was coined.

His great innovation was thus to develop a reliable car that people wanted to buy, and then continually refine his manufacturing process so that his car became more affordable to ever greater numbers of customers.

Innovators change things. They take new ideas, sometimes their own, sometimes other peoples’, and develop and promote those ideas until they become an accepted part of daily life. Innovation requires self-confidence, a taste for taking risks, leadership ability and a vision of what the future should be. Henry Ford had all these characteristics, but it took him many years to develop all of them fully, and even then it didn’t have the ending he wished for.

Success had convinced Ford of the superiority of his own intuition, and he continued to believe that the Model T was the car most people wanted. He ignored the growing popularity of more expensive but more stylish and comfortable cars like the Chevrolet. However, by the late 1920s he could no longer ignore the declining sales figures. In 1927, he reluctantly shut down the Model T assembly lines and began designing a new car.

It appeared in December 1927, and was such a departure from the old Ford that the company went back to the beginning of the alphabet for a name – they called it the Model A. Alas Ford’s intuitive decision-making and one-man control were no longer the formula for success, the Model A was competitive for only four years before being replaced by a newer design.

In 1932, at age 69 Ford introduced his last great automotive innovation, the lightweight, inexpensive V8 engine. Alas even this was not enough to halt his company’s decline, and by 1936 Ford Motor Company had fallen to third place in the US market, behind both General Motors and Chrysler Corporation.

A remarkable story. Ford’s passion, curiosity and ingenuity are the traits we see in many C21st innovators, and he left a legacy of his achievements not just in his business, but also in his own words:

  • Keep your eye on the prize: There are no dead ends, there is always a way out. What you learn in one failure you utilise in your next success. Obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off your goal. Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.
  • Initiative: The unhappiest man on earth is the one who has nothing to do. I am looking for a lot of men who have an infinite capacity to not know what can’t be done. It has been my observation that most people get ahead during the time that others waste. Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.
  • Teamwork: Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success. You will find men who want to be carried on the shoulders of others, who think that the world owes them a living. They don’t seem to see that we must all lift together and pull the weight.
  • Think: Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason why so few engage in it. There is no man living that cannot do more than he thinks he can.When you focus your life, impossibilities become possibilities. Get focused, think, you can do more than you think you can!
  • Solve problems: Most people spend more time and energy going around problems than in trying to solve them. Nothing is particularly hard if you divide it into small jobs. There are no big problems; there are just a lot of little problems.
  • Have the right attitude: You can’t build a reputation on what you are going to do. Enthusiasm is the yeast that makes your hopes shine to the stars. Quality means doing it right when no one is looking. Don’t find fault, find a remedy.

Ford was an exceptional visionary and a problem solver, a hugely progressive and forward-thinking business leader. He had many characteristics – curiosity, self-confidence, a willingness to take risks and a preference for learning by trial and error – that we see in today’s entrepreneurs. His insights not only changed the world in his own time but hold enduring relevance today. As you travel in your car this week, reflect on one man’s ingenuity, and how you can adopt some of his approach to the challenges and opportunities that stand before you.


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