Henry Ford’s contribution as a leader can be best summed up by the following quote: “I will build a motorcar for the great multitude,” (Brainy, 2001). He didn’t invent the assembly line; he innovated it. He enabled cars to be manufactured at a lower cost so that the average person could purchase one rather than just the rich. With this goal in mind, 55% of all cars at the time were Henry’s Model T (Interesting, 2008). This revolutionized the automobile industry. On July 30, 1863 William and Mary Ford gave birth to their first of six children, Henry Ford.
Ford grew up on a family farm in a house built by his father in Springwells Township, Michigan. Ford’s mother died when he was twelve while giving birth, causing him to become very depressed. His father wanted him to take over the family farm over the course of time but he declined, telling his father that he loved the farm just because his mother was there. At the young age of fifteen, Ford attained the status of watch repairman by taking apart and putting back together the pocket watches of neighbors and friends several times, starting when he was thirteen years old.
Although Ford did not like working on the farm, he did learn that there was great value in working hard and being responsible. Ford’s adulthood began at age 16 when he moved away from his father and siblings to the city of Detroit. Due to the death of his mother, Henry moved away to pursue his interest in mechanics. He would return sometimes to help out on the farm because part of him desired the farm life and the other yearned for the mechanist lifestyle. He arrived at Detroit in 1879 and began working for the Flower Brothers Company.
The Flower Brothers shop made brass and iron; Ford was an apprentice and worked on a small milling machine shaping brass valves. Within nine months, Ford left the shop to Detroit Dry Dock Company, the largest shipbuilding factory in the city, with the desire to enrich his mechanical experience. Working for Detroit Dry Dock Company served to his own benefit. Here he was exposed to a wide range of power plants and to Frank E. Kirby, who became his chief engineer in 1918 and constructed Eagle Boats used during War World I. His shift in jobs cquainted him with some experience but also provided him with a much lower pay. Thus, he worked a second job repairing watches. In 1891, Ford became an engineer for the Edison Illuminating Company. In 1896, Ford attended a meeting of Edison executives, where he was introduced to Thomas Edison. With the help of C. Harold Wills, Ford designed, built, and successfully raced a 26-horsepower automobile in October 1901. After this, he returned to the family farm and had a season of ambivalence; part of him desired the farm life and the other yearned for the mechanist’s lifestyle.
For some time he lived at the far as an urban mechanist; however a new mechanical opportunity occurred. When he arrived in Detroit William H. Murphy and other stockholders in the Detroit Automobile Company formed the Henry Ford Company on November 30, 1901, with Ford as chief engineer. He constantly found himself in the scientific world of books, reading publications like the Scientific American, Treatise on the Steam Engine, and World of Science, where he first discovered the new “silent gas engine”. With the help of the “silent gas engine,” Ford introduced the Model T on October 1, 1908.
It had the steering wheel on the left, which every other company soon copied and was one of the very few to use Vanadium Steel (“Wikipedia,” 2011). By 1926, flagging sales of the Model T finally convinced Henry to make a new model and end assembly of the Model T. The result was the successful Ford Model A, introduced in December 1927 and produced through 1931, with a total output of more than four million. Ford was a pioneer of “welfare capitalism”, designed to improve the lot of his workers and especially to reduce the heavy turnover that had many departments hiring 300 men per year to fill 100 slots.
Efficiency meant hiring and keeping the best workers. Ford was against labor unions. He thought they were too heavily influenced by some leaders who, despite their good motives, would end up doing more harm than good for workers. Ford, like other automobile companies, entered the aviation business during World War I, building Liberty engines. Ford opposed war, which he thought was a terrible waste. Ford became highly critical of those who he felt financed war, and he tried to stop them.
Ford had opposed America’s entry into World War II and continued to believe that international business could generate the prosperity that would head off wars. Once the U. S. entered WWII, Ford directed the Ford Motor Company to construct a vast new purpose-built factory at Willow Run near Detroit, Michigan. Ford broke ground on Willow Run in the spring of 1941, with the first B-24 coming off the line in October 1942. He opened Ford assembly plants in Britain and Canada in 1911, and soon became the biggest automotive producer in those countries.
By 1932, Ford was manufacturing one third of all the world’s automobiles. Ford maintained an interest in auto racing from 1901 to 1913 and began his involvement in the sport as both a builder and a driver. In ill health, Ford ceded the presidency to his grandson Henry Ford II in September 1945 and went into retirement. He died in 1947 of a cerebral hemorrhage at age 83 in Fair Lane, his Dearborn estate. Ford maintained a vacation residence (known as the “Ford Plantation”) in Richmond Hill, Georgia. Ford was probably one of the most autocratic leaders there will ever be. A similar pattern of authoritarian control and stubbornness marked Ford’s attitude toward his workers,” (Carol, 2012). Ford’s desire for absolute control set the stage for decline. Ford refused to follow other automobile manufacturers in offering such innovative features as conventional gearshifts, hydraulic brakes, six and eight-cylinder engines, and choice of color. In December 1927 he introduced the Model A. Although the new model enjoyed solid success it was discontinued in 1931, Ford ended up losing his leadership position in the industry to General Motors’ Chevrolet and Chrysler’s Plymouth.
Despite the introduction of the Ford V-8 in 1932, by 1936 Ford Motor Company was third in sales in the industry. Henry Ford was more of an innovator than an inventor. Of the few inventions he had, the most important were the Model T and the Model A because they were not only inventions, they were innovations that would change transportation forever. With these inventions, Ford introduced everyday transportation to the average American for a low price. (“Wikipedia,” 2011). Not only did Ford improve transportation, he also innovated the assembly line by implementing interchangeable parts and a onveyer belt to not only increase the speed of automobile production but to allow for widespread mass production. Ford’s assembly line advanced the making of a Model T chassis from 12 hours and 8 minutes to 1 hour and 33 minutes (Model T Ford). Ironically enough, Ford’s improved assembly line helped lead the Allies’ to victory by mass producing weapons, ships, planes, and tanks, even though he was opposed to war (Luo, 2011). Some of the many ideas and foundations left behind by Henry Ford include minimum wage, the Henry Ford Museum, and the Ford Motor Company.
Ford suggested the idea of minimum wage with his five-dollar a day salary plan (equal to one hundred twenty dollars today), which encouraged workers to flock to him and ensured them and their family financial stability (Ford, 1922). Ford founded a museum based on his sole purpose in life, American innovation. The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, is the largest indoor and outdoor museum in the world (Watts, 2006). The most profound foundation of Henry Ford’s legacy is the Ford Motor Company, still existing today as the world’s fourth largest automaker.
Interestingly enough, Ford Motor Company is the only major American automobile manufacturer that has not required immediate government bailout aid to date, proving the strength of Ford’s company one hundred years after its foundation. As you can see, Ford Motor Company’s current mission statement still includes the ideas of which it was founded: “We are a global family with a proud heritage passionately committed to providing personal mobility for people around the world,” (Luo, 2011).
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