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Published on February 18th, 2018 | by James Ayre


Henry Ford & Elon Musk — Business Practices, Anti-Union Views, Innovations, & Satire

February 18th, 2018 by  

If Henry Ford were alive today, what would he think of the current iteration of his namesake company? What would he think of Tesla Motors? What would he think of the auto industry as a whole?

Those are impossible questions to truly know the answers to, as Henry Ford is of course at this point long dead — and now mostly exists as a distributed mass of organic nutrients and minerals spread amongst the worms, fungi, microbes, and plants of the Ford Cemetery where he was buried in Detroit. (Though, he did reportedly believe in metempsychosis/reincarnation.)

What we can do, though, is take a look at the various comments he made during his life, and the opinions that he apparently held — in particular, those relating to business management and social issues. And we can discuss the blind spots that those incumbent in positions of power often have with regard to the context of their times and market changes.

First, though, I’ll quickly cut off a line of humor/criticism that some might like to pursue, right here at the beginning — yes, as Elon Musk isn’t a Jew, Henry Ford isn’t too likely to have had anything against the man on a personal level. Now, let’s stick mostly to the business side of things here, alright? 🙂

Henry Ford & Elon Musk — Commonalities & Differences As Regards Business Practices

Henry Ford’s approach to business was something of an outlier during his times, though some aspects were widely copied by competitor firms after he introduced them. This shouldn’t be too surprising, as Ford was essentially an engineer/inventor at heart (and could be said to have begun his automotive career while working at the Edison Illuminating Company) rather than a businessman.

In this regard, Henry Ford and Elon Musk are indeed somewhat similar — both being known to seemingly work from an engineer’s (or sometimes showman’s or philanthropist’s) mindset rather than a strictly business-oriented one.

Both tycoons also seem to be motivated by a mix of utopian idealism and concern for the most prominent social issues of the day — climate change and Mars colonization in the case of Musk, and worker treatment and war in the case of Ford. That said, both are also known for perhaps not being the easiest people to work for — with regard to Musk, due to his aggressive timelines and worker burnout; and with regard to Ford, due to his willingness to use his “Social Department” investigators to snoop on the activities of his workers to an incredible degree.

The “worker burnout” discussed above is particularly interesting in this context, as Henry Ford was actually a pioneer of the 40-hour, 5-day work week (a reduction of earlier industry standards). So there’s certainly a contrast to be made there between Ford and Musk — it’s almost as though the Musk-ian approach to business is attempting to roll back some of the changes pioneered by Ford.

Elsewhere, commonalities are easier to find — with the two business figures possessing similar views on labor unions, for instance. And while Musk (as far as I know) doesn’t pay private investigators to snoop on his employees, he is ostensibly part of the tech sector, which is intimately entwined with the intelligence services operating within the US … but that’s a bit of a stretch as far as a comparison between Musk and Ford.

It seems the two certainly also have/had a mind for creating positive PR — with Ford’s focus on advertising and “big announcements” being matched by Musk’s effective use of social media and spectacle.

Implementation Of New Technology & Manufacturing Procedures

Henry Ford wasn’t so much a creator of pioneering technology or manufacturing approaches himself as he was an implementer, a popularizer, and a harvester of talent — something that could probably be said to be true of Elon Musk as well.

For instance, while the implementation of moving assembly lines in his factories was of course ultimately all down to Ford, the idea itself seems to have originated with others at the company — Clarence Avery, Charles E Sorensen, Peter E Martin, and C Harold Wills, reportedly.

Elon Musk’s efforts to centralize, automate, and vertically integrate manufacturing at Tesla and SpaceX makes for a similar situation — Musk certainly didn’t design the approaches in question, but he is pioneering (in some ways) their uses on a large scale in his industries to bring down costs and dampen supplier risk in fast-changing industries.

The ideas are there, the talent is there, the money is floating around, but there was nothing tying them together until Musk or Ford came along, in other words. (Ford and Musk no doubt have made their own contributions as well, but I would figure that would go without saying.)

Something that might surprise some of those reading this is that Henry Ford’s initial ventures were often running into cash supply problems … partly owing to Ford’s fairly aggressive approach to development/expansion — something seemingly shared by Musk. Aggressive expansion is a financially intensive process, but one that allows for rapid market-share conquest presuming that everything goes well — something that seems to go over the heads of many people when discussing Tesla’s financial situation.

The takeaway of all of this is that Henry Ford implemented whatever technologies or means that he could that he thought would allow for the achievement of his goals — an approach which led to the mass adoption of internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles in the US (whether you consider that to be a good thing or not is another question…).

One of the goals that Henry Ford was pursuing was “world peace through consumerism” — probably a strangely idealistic belief to most modern ears, but one that seems to have motivated Ford to a large degree. There’s perhaps a parallel to be drawn there with regard to Elon Musk’s assertion that consumer adoption of electric vehicles, solar panels, and battery packs will to a substantial degree limit anthropogenic climate warming and weirding. You could also loop in his assertion that “colonizing” Mars is possible, and a good thing, but it’s too early to say on either count.

Anti-Union Beliefs

Moving on, it’s worth touching on the shared anti-union beliefs of both Henry Ford and Elon Musk. While Ford seemingly worked as hard as he could to hold onto his best labor (so long as they weren’t gamblers, drunks, or dead-beat fathers), Musk is known for running companies with a high level of worker burnout and turnover.

Despite those differences, the two seem to have had much the same thing to say about labor unions — a good idea perhaps, but too easily influenced by self-interested leadership and too capable of doing harm (while claiming to do good).

Interestingly, despite his anti-union views, Ford does seem to have been more of a realist about management failures than many — noting that many managers didn’t comprehend that their job was, ultimately, to serve the best interests of those they manage. That view certainly didn’t negate his anti-union view, though.

Of Ford’s many noted faults, one of the worst was perhaps his use of strong-arm tactics against union representatives — the “Battle of the Overpass” incident perhaps being the most notable example, where his security men attacked United Auto Workers union (UAW) reps with clubs and the police stood by without intervening.

Obviously, times have changed, and Elon Musk’s anti-union views don’t go quite that far. If anything, it seems that it’s now the unions that do more to stir up trouble, at least in the US.

A final note — Ford did eventually unionize in 1941 (and at some of the most-favorable-to-the-workers terms in the industry at the time).

Concern With Social Issues Of The Day

One thing that comes up over and over again when taking a look back at Henry Ford’s life are his pacifistic views, and also the seemingly overly idealistic ways that he went about trying to live by them.

The general line of thinking that Henry Ford seems to have held — and many others of his time did as well — was that deeper international ties, trade, and consumerism could make war a thing of the past.

Apparently, long of the opinion that war was by nature a “waste” and that modern forms were largely the work of greedy financiers looking to profit from it, Henry Ford was well known for initially opposing both the First World War and the Second World War. His companies did end up producing weapons that were used in both wars, though, it should be realized — this includes doing business directly with Nazi Germany (Ford subsidiary Ford-Werke seems to have used French-POW slave labor).

It should also be noted that he seems to have held the view that many of the “financiers” behind various social ills of the times were Jewish — and even went as far as to finance a weekly newspaper called The Dearborn Independent that spread anti-Jewish perspectives. It’s also notable that the original Volkswagen was modeled after the Ford Model T — as Adolf Hitler and many other Nazi figures were apparently great fans of Henry Ford himself and of the Model T.

As a counterpoint, though, it’s also worth noting that Ford was one of the few major corporations of the early 1920s in the US that actually hired handicapped people, women, and black people. It’s also worth noting that by all accounts he always dealt fairly with Jewish workers and suppliers. So, how then should one take his views?

From a long-view perspective of history, I’d simply say that everyone is to some degree or other a product of their times — and carries with them many of the easy answers, assumptions, over-simplifications, and projections of their times and cultures. Brilliance in one area doesn’t preclude blindness in another.

Looking back now, it’s probably not clear to many people just how widespread anti-Jewish views were throughout the US and many other countries — such views were accepted as “common sense” and “obviously true” to the culture of the times, in other words. (Modern culture has many such blind spots as well, some of which will no doubt only be clear to people living decades or centuries from now — as we simply aren’t aware of them.)

So, how should we relate this aspect of Henry Ford to Elon Musk? Personally, I’ll just note that I remain skeptical that consumerism and further expansion (to Mars, for instance) is capable of solving any of the major “problems” of our times and leave it at that.

Satirization In The Popular Media Of The Times

I’ll end things here by noting the fact that both Henry Ford and Elon Musk seem to have managed to become objects of pop culture reference and satirization — not surprising, given the way that both seem to use or have used themselves as lightning rods to generate publicity.

While the satirizations of Musk that are out there now are likely easily recognizable by most of those reading this, many of the ones of Henry Ford that were extant when he was are perhaps quite a bit funnier.

The semi-serious jokes in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World about Ford — A.F. (In The Year Of Our Ford); the “My Ford/My Lord” substitution; for instance — have more than a bit of truth to them when seen from the transition of a relatively religious society to a relatively consumerist one (as was occurring in the early 1900s). There’s quite a bit more bite to that satirization than the recent one that recast Elon Musk as a comic book character.

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About the Author

James Ayre's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy. You can follow his work on Google+.

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