Five Professional Lessons from Henry Ford’s Entrepreneurial Career

“HENRY IS A TINKERER, NOT A FARMER!” his father used to say. And he was kind of right. William Ford’s eldest son was different from his siblings. Fond of fiddling with everything from toys to clocks, Henry was far from being a farmer. The Ford family lived on a farm in Michigan’s Greenfield Township: William and Marry Ford with their five kids. Life was hard as farmers, but Henry thought there should be a smarter way of earning a living.

After his mother’s death, Henry left the farm and walked to the nearby city of Detroit, where he apprenticed as a machinist. After a couple of years, he returned to the farm but still had no interest in farming; rather, he earned a local reputation for repairing the Westinghouse portable steam engines, which were growing in popularity among farmers. Hearing on the grapevine, the Westinghouse company hired him to service their steam engines.

Young Henry had no intention to be a farmer, but he did not see himself as a simple mechanic either. After gaining experience with steam engines, he joined Edison Illuminating Company and was soon promoted to Chief Engineer. Meanwhile he continued with his machine tinkering experiments in his private time; recently invented gasoline engines were his favorite amusement. In addition, he took a course in accounting and bookkeeping. Clearly, he had a vision to run an enterprise of his own someday.

Lesson One: Upgrade your skills in line with your career aspirations.  Henry Ford’s family had a farming background and his father thought his eldest son will follow the tradition; however, Henry had a clear vision about his career as an entrepreneur. All his actions were aimed at achieving that ambition.

Henry was still a young man when he heard about “horseless carriages” invented by Karl Benz, a walrus-moustached German engineer. He found the invention interesting however, loathed the fact that these carriages called automobiles were luxuries limited for the rich. Besides, they were considered unsafe; in Britain, someone had to walk in front of a slowly moving car, waving a red flag as a warning!

Henry Ford believed automobiles should be available to ordinary folks. Following this notion, he hand-built his own car called Quadricycle and took it for its first spin on June 4, 1896. The same year, he met his boss, Thomas Edison who encouraged him to continue his efforts with automobiles. In 1898, he built his second vehicle, better than the first one. However, he could not generate sufficient demand for his new vehicle. People thought he was crazy.

During next few years, Ford continued building and selling cars with slight financial success. Despite his talents, his first two business ventures were unsuccessful; had Ford died at forty, no one would know him today. In 1903, he tried another venture and it was through this third venture, the Ford Motor Company was founded on June 16, 1903. What followed was wealth, fame, and success.  

Lesson Two: Do not lose hope if your initial efforts fail; with each failed attempt, you draw closer to success. When Henry Ford started making cars, people thought him a silly inventor wasting his time over a frivolous endeavor. However, even after failing with his first two ventures, Ford did not give up his goal and succeeded with the third attempt.

The following five years saw significant improvements in cars manufactured by the Ford Motor Company: introduction of steering wheel, forward and reverse transmissions, and placement of the engine under the front hood, to name a few. The Model T introduced in 1908 was a major success; with more than 15 million cars sold, Ford thought he was on the right track. Nevertheless, something was still missing: his cars were user-friendly but still too expensive for common public.

In order to make his cars cheaper, Ford realized, he would have to reduce the cost of production, and he would need to sell a lot of them. To accomplish this, he introduced a set of efficient production techniques aimed at boosting efficiency of individual workers. Completely interchangeable parts, division of labor to extreme degree, and the assembly line were the salient features of his manufacturing strategy.

Though he is often credited as the pioneer of mass-production, none of the above ideas were original with Ford. Contrary to the popular belief, he did not invent an automobile, Benz and Daimler had already done it; Eli Whitney had used interchangeable parts more than a century before; and the concept of assembly line was borrowed from meat industry. However, Ford assimilated those methodologies according to his requirements.

By 1916, when the assembly line had been perfected, his plant located at Highland Park turned out 730,041 cars at a retail price of $360—a price an average American could pay. Ford came to be hailed as “People’s Car Maker”.

Lesson Three: Do not hesitate to learn from others; be ready to adapt their ideas to your benefit. The ideas Henry Ford deployed to manufacture heaps of cheap cars were borrowed from others. But once he combined them in his manufacturing facility, he became the pioneer of mass-production. 

The introduction of assembly line took Ford’s business to unprecedented heights; nonetheless, the repetitive motions involved made his workers feel bored of their monotonous jobs. In order to keep them motivated, Henry doubled their wages from $2.5 to $5 a day; the same week, thousands of men hurried to Highland Park to ask for jobs; police had to soak them with fire hoses to avoid pandemonium.

Common myths around Ford portray him as a lone inventor building his car in a shed. However, this is far from true. The vehicles built by the Ford Motor Company were the outcome of joint efforts from a group of talented people. One of Henry Ford’s greatest talents was an instinct for talent in others and his natural ability to build a team of smart people.

Henry Ford was extremely particular about choosing his workers and paid them good wages so that they could also buy the cars they made. A special department was established to ensure the general welfare of the workers. The Ford Motor Company was like one big family with Henry as its father.

Lesson Four: Value your team; give incentives to keep them motivated. Introduction of the assembly line was a smart move; it gave Ford the leverage of manufacturing large number of cheaper cars. However, his workers started feeling bored, so he gave them incentives to keep them motivated.

Contrary to what most successful men would do, Henry was not secretive about his mass production techniques; rather, he publicized them. The result was a tremendous increase in industrial productivity throughout the country, and eventually the world. By 1927, he owned a business spanning across 33 countries; he was as wealthy as one could imagine. But there was one thing he cared more than money: to make world a better place. He wanted to leave a legacy.

What was Henry Ford’s legacy: when he had left his father’s farm as a young man, four out of five Americans lived in farms; when he died, four in every five lived in cities, linked together through a network of roads with cars running on them.

Lesson Five: Leave a legacy; make world better for those who follow you. You may earn a lot of money, but world will remember you for your legacy, not wealth. Henry Ford was one of the wealthiest entrepreneurs of his time but today we remember him as the father of car manufacturing, not as a wealthy businessman.

Henry Ford died in 1947 at age 83. He did not invent the car, but thanks mainly to him, car making became a crucial industry in the United States and the rest of the world.

6 thoughts on “Five Professional Lessons from Henry Ford’s Entrepreneurial Career

  1. Pingback: Five Lessons to Help You Be Perseverant with Your Goals | Five Lessons

  2. Zeeshan very inspiring article on Henry Ford thanks. Yes his vision was not to make money like most folks but to make his T model Ford car affordable to every American. And with this he did not get tempted to make his cars colourful and comfortable but black and straight back seats. This helped in manufacturing economies of scale with his assembly line and to reduce costs to bare minimum. To fulfill his Vision he kept lowest profit margins.
    Great blog 👍

    Liked by 1 person

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