From Richard Tedlow's insightful group portrait of seven American entrepreneurs—from Andrew Carnegie to Sam Walton—a rough formula for titanhood can be educed.
Be born to a strong loving mother and a distant unsuccessful father. "Oedipal victory" acts as a sort of booster rocket of ambition, especially if, like Carnegie, who lived with his mother into his forties, you feel no guilt when you've finally got the old girl to yourself.
Don't go to an Ivy League university. Only two of Tedlow's subjects in Giants of Enterprise: Seven Business Innovators and the Empires They Built were college men. It's true that for Robert Noyce, the scientist who founded Intel, higher education was crucial. However, while Noyce did get a Ph.D. in physics from MIT, his undergraduate training at Grinnell, where he befriended a professor curious about transistors, left a far deeper mark on his career. "The tycoons in this book were far more important to the nation's credentialing institutions than those institutions were to the tycoons," Tedlow writes. He points to Carnegie, with no education, endowing Carnegie-Mellon, and to George Eastman, the high school dropout who founded Eastman Kodak, leaving millions to MIT. (Steve Jobs, Michael Dell, and Bill Gates all dropped out of college as well.) "The people in this book were born, not made." Self-credentialed, they sprung, like Jay Gatsby, from some Platonic conception of themselves.
Don't let failure dash élan. Henry Ford didn't; he led two companies that failed, including one, the Henry Ford Company, that bore his name. Thomas Watson was fired from his post as chief operating officer of the National Cash Register Company in his late forties. Sam Walton made the Ben Franklin five and dime in Newport, Arkansas, a huge success—only to have his landlord refuse to renew his lease. "It was the low point in my life," Walton later reflected. Nevertheless, he picked himself up, and, with his wife and four children, moved across the state to Bentonville, population 3,000 compared to Newport's 7,000, to start at the bottom again in a new store. In words to which Tedlow's giants would all say "Amen," he wrote, "I have never been one to dwell on reverses, and I didn't do so then." Ambition in these men was durable and long-acting. They were inner-directed, not needing outer ratification. None of Faulkner's books was still in print when Malcolm Cowley began to put together his Portable Faulkner in 1946. This did not stop Faulkner from continuing to write. Pace Tedlow, the world needs greatness more than greatness needs the world.
Surround yourself with yes-men. Henry Ford persecuted initiative. Returning from a trip to Europe he discovered that his engineers had made small improvements to the Model T. "It was a better, smoother-riding vehicle, and his associates hoped to surprise and please him," David Halberstam writes in The Reckoning.
Ford walked around it several times. Finally he approached the left-hand door and ripped it off. Then he ripped off the other door. Then he bashed the windshield. Then he threw out the back seat and bashed the roof of the car with his shoe. During all this time he said nothing. There was no doubt whose car the T was and no doubt who was the only man permitted to change it.
Thomas Watson, Tedlow writes, was the "one free man at IBM." "The longer I worked at IBM," his son Tom Jr. wrote in his memoirs, "the more I became convinced that my father's style silenced too many people." Tom Sr. was insufferably dictatorial toward any show of independence from Tom Jr. In one of the psychological speculations that give boldness to his book, Tedlow ventures of Watson Sr. that his "early mastery of his father may have sown in him the fear that his own son would do the same to him." Success immunized these men not only from criticism but often from advice. In varying degrees, they succumbed to the "derangement of power," a near-psychotic relation to reality. The impervious inner-direction that made them rise made them liable to fall. The scene of Henry Ford wrecking the Model T prefigured the self-wrought wreck of his own company.
Above all, carry the future in your bones. Capitalists are people who "make bets on the future." Andrew Carnegie won big when he gambled that America's cities would rise on scaffolds of steel. Without market research to bolster his audacity, Ford set out to transform the automobile from the plaything of the rich that it was in 1900 into a mass product. Like Carnegie, he had a fundamental insight into the nature of production. By making great numbers of cars on his assembly lines, he drove the price of each car so low—from $590 in 1911 to $260 in 1924—that millions of Americans could afford one. Sam Walton applied to retail sales the idea of economies of scale and scope that Ford established in production. By bulk purchasing commodities, he was able to cut the cost of any single item for the consumer. Charles Revson gambled that he could charge 50 percent more for his nail polish if he did image advertising. Women were not buying a mix of colored chemicals when they bought a Revlon product but "Hope in a Jar," to use the title of a book on the cosmetics industry. "By transforming nail polish from chemicals to fantasy," Tedlow writes, "Revlon changed the nature of the appeal to buy from the rational to the emotional. Revson detached the selling price from the cost of goods sold." That feat defines "branding."
Finally, don't let goodness inhibit greatness. Tedlow observes that "To be a success in business, one is simply forced to do things which are hard on others." Nobody had to force Charles Revson, a self-described "bastard" who enjoyed crushing other people. George Eastman, Sam Walton, and Robert Noyce were not bastards, did not sacrifice goodness to greatness. But like artists and statesmen, great entrepreneurs live by an ethic of results. When Faulkner's daughter asked him not to get drunk so he could attend her upcoming birthday party, she asked too much, for Faulkner built his writing week toward his benders. "Little girl," he replied, "who ever heard of Shakespeare's daughter?" The answer is: no one.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to email@example.com.