From , by Henry Ford Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Twenty years after the founding of the Ford Motor Company, Henry Ford had recently acquired total ownership and control. Although rumors had circulated that he was going bankrupt and was out of touch, Ford had demonstrated that he had the financial and personal resources to meet the challenges of the early 1920s. As the most respected business leader of that time, Ford wanted to influence others who sought to become entrepreneurs. In this book, he set forth his philosophy of business and of life. The economy of the United States had been in a short, but significant, recession in 1920–21, and many looked to the future with uncertainty. Ford believed that the principles that had guided him in prior years would serve him well in the years to come. Thus, he and Crowther wrote a book that outlined a foundation to assist in strengthening the American economy and improving all levels of American society.

Summary Overview

Twenty years after the founding of the Ford Motor Company, Henry Ford had recently acquired total ownership and control. Although rumors had circulated that he was going bankrupt and was out of touch, Ford had demonstrated that he had the financial and personal resources to meet the challenges of the early 1920s. As the most respected business leader of that time, Ford wanted to influence others who sought to become entrepreneurs. In this book, he set forth his philosophy of business and of life. The economy of the United States had been in a short, but significant, recession in 1920–21, and many looked to the future with uncertainty. Ford believed that the principles that had guided him in prior years would serve him well in the years to come. Thus, he and Crowther wrote a book that outlined a foundation to assist in strengthening the American economy and improving all levels of American society.

Defining Moment

Although Ford had been a peace activist prior to 1917, when the United States finally entered the First World War he shifted the company’s production lines to help support the war effort. Up to that time, the company had been very successful, with its focus on the production of the Model T. In the first months after the end of the war, Ford and the company prospered, owing to the pent-up demand for automobiles. However, in 1920, when the first general economic recession since the development of the auto industry started, Ford was not well positioned to face it. There were pressures from his creditors, who were uneasy due to rumors that the company was insolvent. Adding to the credit problem was the fact that Ford had borrowed twenty million dollars in 1919 to buy out all the other company owners. With decreasing sales of its Model T, the Ford Motor Company and its owner were thought, by some, to be facing their end.

However, Ford, aided by key executives, transformed the company. They refocused their efforts, doing away with many of the products they had added to help the war effort. The number of administrative positions was greatly decreased. In line with Ford’s personal philosophy of caring for his workers, most laid-off office employees were offered jobs in the factory. Resources not necessary for the newly focused company were sold. But the most important change was the development of the first just-in-time production system. Ford could pressure his suppliers to insure on-time delivery. This allowed him to reduce his inventory by more than enough to allow him to pay off all the loans. He also pressured his dealers, resulting in an increased cash flow for the company. Thus, while Ford and the Ford Motor Company had been expected to be eventual failures, instead they were once again seen as the leaders of American industry. As a privately held company, rather than one with shares traded on a major stock exchange, Ford Motor Company differed from other major corporations. Partly because of this, Ford was even more admired by many Americans. It was at this point that Ford, with the assistance of Crowther, decided to publish what was publicized as an autobiography, but which was in reality more of a philosophical statement. Read not only in America but translated into numerous languages, My Life and Work impacted political and economic thought around the world.

Author Biography

Henry Ford (1863–1947) was an American industrial leader of the early twentieth century. Growing up on a farm, he demonstrated an early mechanical aptitude. After being a machinist’s apprentice in Detroit, he left to work on portable steam engines, eventually ending up as an engineer for Thomas Edison. In the 1890s, he began developing a quadricycle (automobile). After two failed attempts, in 1902, he, with several partners, formed what became the Ford Motor Company. His most successful car, the Model T, began production in 1908. An excellent engineer and shrewd businessman, he established the moving assembly line, set the forty-hour work week as the norm, and supported a living wage for workers, although he was sternly anti-union. Although Ford was inclusive in his business dealings and treatment of his workforce, he supported an anti-Semitic publication in the 1920s. However, when asked in 1924, he refused to support Germany’s Nazi Party.

Samuel Crowther (1880–1947) was a journalist and author. In addition to articles in numerous publications, Crowther wrote, or co-wrote, fifteen books, mainly on business. He collaborated with Henry Ford on four books, this being the first.

Document Analysis

Henry Ford understood that his approach to business was different from that of most other people. Early in the introduction to this book, he stated that his theory of business was really, “a theory that looks toward making this world a better place in which to live.” Although Ford did not object to all the money his approach made for him, he claimed that this should not be the sole focus of business. He used the word “service” to encapsulate the essence of what should be one’s life’s goal. The section of the introduction to My Life and Work, which is reprinted above, is the last four pages. After outlining his principles in the introduction, nineteen chapters followed, with each focusing on a different aspect of Ford’s business and personal philosophy. Because Ford was not an accomplished writer, Crowther was the one who put the words on paper. While the philosophy of the text was clearly Ford’s, much of the phrasing represented Crowther’s contribution to the text.

Although an engineer by inclination, Ford was a manufacturer by profession. Thus, he began this passage by focusing on the central aspect of what he did. This was to provide a service to the public, by manufacturing a reliable automobile at a reasonable price. This was the Model T, in production for twenty years, which he had developed twelve years after his first car, the quadricycle. From 1903 to 1908, Ford Motor Company produced eight models prior to the Model T’s debut; during most of that period, Ford was not the major shareholder in the company. While these were successful products, none of them met his goal of a car that would be affordable to everyone. Although in the late 1920s, Ford was forced to follow the pattern of slightly changing car designs every model year, he was convinced that this was a wasteful exercise. In his mind, making the manufacturing process more efficient was a better change than slight changes in the product. When this book was written, the Ford Motor Company produced about forty percent of the cars sold in the United States. This allowed it to develop the multiple suppliers necessary to reliably provide essential components to its manufacturing plants.

Given his focus on the manufacturing process, rather than on continually redesigning cars, it is understandable why Ford considered waste a major problem. His adaptation of the assembly line, learned from meat packing plants, was an example of reducing waste in the human effort required, resulting in a lower manufacturing cost. While such efficiency added to his profits, he saw it as a byproduct of good service to the customer. He truly believed that his efforts to streamline the manufacturing process made all people “the better for our existence.” While not everyone saw the steps he took to control the manufacturing process as positive for the nation, Ford believed that it allowed him to reduce waste and control costs. Similarly, some thought it was easy for Ford to say that greed was a bad thing, while at the same time, making more money than most people in the country (or any country). While ignoring that aspect of his success, Ford asserts elsewhere in the introduction that it takes strong individual leadership to direct a company; he uses the failing Soviet experiment in running factories by committee as a counter-example.

Four principles, which essentially close the introduction, illustrate some of what set Ford apart from most other businessmen. He advocates pushing for progress, being the best, serving the public, and seeking only a fair return for one’s efforts–not extraordinary profits. This is a different mindset from that of most of his contemporaries in industry. While his views distinguished Ford from his competitors, it also allowed him to become a dominant force in the American economic system.

Essential Themes

As with many great men, Henry Ford was a contradiction: a man of his times as well as one far ahead of his times. This book, and related material, was a widely studied treatise on how to conduct business. While Ford could use his economic muscle to force suppliers to do things his way, he could also pay factory workers more than some of his competitors, while selling quality cars at a lower price. Two of the ideas he advocated, and which have had a big impact, were: 1) achieving efficiency by eliminating waste, and 2) what is now known as a “just-in-time” system of manufacturing, or making the next part in the line only when it is needed (as opposed to building up an inventory). By the end of the twentieth century, many did not associate key portions of these innovations with Henry Ford; rather, they were associated with Japanese business practices, especially with Toyota. After World War II, Japanese business leaders were searching for a model that would help them rebound from the war. Toyota executives studied Ford’s approach to business and developed their model based partly on his, albeit without as much pressure on their suppliers. Thus, through a circuitous route, what was Ford’s unique approach to business in the United States during the early twentieth century has continued to influence American business leaders into the twenty-first.

Ford’s focus on an efficient manufacturing system, whether by using the assembly line or by not having a large inventory of components sitting idle in a warehouse, was his major contribution. When My Life and Work was written, not only was the United States coming out of an economic recession, but there was great turmoil in the larger world. Both extreme right-wing (i.e., Nazi) and left-wing (i.e., Communist) groups were not only challenging the political structure, they were advocating different economic systems. Ford’s response was to promote an economic system he believed served the needs of society as well as his fellow industrialists. For him, this was possible only if wasteful and greedy practices were abandoned. Thus, “service,” to use his term, was the key not only to producing a quality product, but to creating a stable foundation for society.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Brinkley, Douglas. Wheels for the World: Henry Ford, His Company, and a Century of Progress. New York: Viking Adult, 2003. Print.
  • Ford, Henry, with Samuel Crowther. My Life and Work. New York: Garden City Pub. Co., 1922. Google eBook, 14 Sept. 2006. Web. 20 July 2014.
  • “Henry Ford.” American Experience. Narr. Oliver Platt. PBS. WGBH, Boston, 15 July 2014. Television.
  • “The Life of Henry Ford.” The Henry Ford Museum. Dearborn, MI: The Henry Ford, 2013. Web. 17 Jul. 2014.
  • Watts, Stephen. The People’s Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century. New York: Vintage Books, 2009. Print.
Categories: History Content