Henry Ford - The Khuram Dhanani Blog
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Khuram Dhanani

Henry Ford

American history is filled with examples of entrepreneurs who became wealthy through hard work and a knack for innovation. Only a handful, however, have fundamentally changed the world. Nearly 75 years after his death, millions drive vehicles bearing his name, and 1.2 billion people around the world drive cars. Before Ford, motorcars were expensive toys for the rich. His industrial innovations made the automobile affordable for the working classes and accelerated the country’s expansion.

It’s interesting to consider what may be the “clicking point” for Henry Ford. His family wasn’t poor, and there doesn’t seem to be any incident of particular trauma or loss, except perhaps the loss of his mother when he was a teenager. Henry was an innovator, which suggests that he preferred the freedom to think as he chose. This is evident in his dislike for laborious farm work, preferring instead the automated complexity of machines. Was there a hunger for recognition? That doesn’t appear to be so. Even though he changed the world, the fire of competition doesn’t seem to have gripped his soul, either.

When studying Henry Ford’s life, the only clicking point that appears to have been the fuel for his success is the combination of his love of machinery and his interest in improving people’s lives. Though he didn’t believe in outright charitable contributions and often expressed that opinion, nonetheless the contribution he did make made a significant difference that has affected everyone on the planet. In his own words, “I will build a motor car for the great multitude. It will be so low in price that no man will be unable to own one.” 

Henry was born in 1863 on a small farm near Detroit, Michigan. His parents were immigrants and Henry add five siblings. The family made a good living on their farm and was financially comfortable. Henry worked hard on the farm from an early age and attended school until 15, disliking it intensely.

It was the school he didn’t like because Henry loved learning, and taught himself a great deal through hands-on experience, especially mechanics. His father gave him the pocket watch when he was 13. Fascinated that the spring-driven device could run for hours before winding, Henry disassembled it and studied its workings. He then put it back together, and it ran perfectly. Soon, he had taught himself the basics of watch repair, starting a lifelong fascination with mechanical devices.

When Henry’s mother passed away, Henry took a few personal items and walked the few miles into Detroit. He found work as an apprentice in a machine shop. A year later, Ford moved on to working with steam engines, and mining and milling equipment. Since Ford was an apprentice, he didn’t earn enough to support himself, so he took on work as a watch repairman. 

Short on capital, Ford experimented with steam engines. This led to thinking about a motorized carriage powered by an internal combustion engine. Though Ford did not invent the automobile, he was, however, one of the earliest automotive pioneers. One of his early vehicles caught the attention of several Detroit business people, and his project received $150,000 in investment capital, enough to quit his job and open a small automobile factory.

There was plenty of competition and Ford had no experience designing or running a factory. Low on capital and experience, he was out of business in two years. Ford started a second company but that also went under. This was when he learned from his mistakes and developed solutions for each obstacle that confronted him.

He envisioned an ideal factory that operated like clockwork, with all components functioning in complicated harmony together. This would form the backbone of Ford’s principal contribution to the automobile industry and  American society in general.

Ford’s third company worked like a charm and this company was a resounding success, mostly because of Ford’s improvements to the production process.

Henry Ford is sometimes credited for creating the production assembly line, but he did not do so. Ford’s contributions were to emphasize this production method and make continuous improvements, fine-tuning automotive production as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible. He and his executives studied the assembly line processes used in slaughterhouses, mail handling facilities, and other industries, applying the lessons to making cars.

The advantages that made this car the top-selling American automobile for the next several years were simple: the Model T was affordable and reliable. It was also easy for anyone to drive and for any mechanic to repair. With this single model, automobiles in America transitioned from expensive novelties to standard household equipment.

Pushed along by a massive national advertising campaign, Model T sales soared for the next several years. A decade after its introduction, Model Ts comprised roughly half the cars traveling American roads. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Ford continually lowered the price, year after year. This was made possible by continual improvements to production efficiency. One component of this ongoing effort was the creation of a loyal, experienced workforce. Ford accomplished this by paying his employees wages equivalent to more than $125 per day in today’s money and introducing other workplace perks like profit sharing and a 40-hour workweek. Even though Henry Ford rarely made charitable contributions, he made contributions in a different manner, improving workplace conditions and providing a high-quality product that made a significant difference in people’s lives.

 In 1932, the company introduced the Ford V8, an eight-cylinder car so fast and powerful that famed outlaw Clyde Barrow, of Bonnie and Clyde fame, reputedly wrote Ford a letter to compliment him on its suitability as a getaway car. Of course, it’s also possible this was simply a marketing ploy created by the Ford Motor Company!

Henry Ford passed away in 1947, at the age of 83. He left behind a society that had been fundamentally altered by his innovations. While rapid train travel had been commonly available for nearly a century, passengers had to stick to a fixed route and a fixed timetable. With the introduction of affordable and reliable automobiles, individuals and families could travel from point to point on their own schedules. Americans now possessed the freedom of the open road, and the country, and the world, would never be the same. 

Henry Ford didn’t invent the assembly line, but he did find a way to apply and continually improve the concept in a way that no one else had thought to do. Ford is a great example of how you don’t have to create something new to be a huge success. Sometimes, simply improving on an idea that already exists, or using it in a different way can be the gateway to your success. The great benefit of the Internet is that opportunities are abundant and lucrative. You now have the opportunity to brainstorm solutions to the problems impeding others, and can make your fortune doing it. Opportunity is everywhere!

Khuram Dhanani
Khuram Dhanani
Khuram Dhanani
kd@softstonecapital.com