Portrait of Ford Motor's 'whiz kids'

October 17, 1993|By Neal Lipschutz

Title: "The Whiz Kids: Ten Founding Fathers of American Business -- and the Legacy They Left Us"

Author: John A. Byrne

Publisher: Currency/Doubleday

Length, price: 581 pages, $27.50

You hear and read a lot these days about the death of the American Dream." Each generation attempts (and expects) to outdo its predecessor in material wealth. But now we're told our world is one of limits. Natural resources are finite. The environment is fragile. Business competition is global and intense, keeping pressure on wages and inhibiting job growth.

It wasn't always this way. Not too long ago, American business reigned supreme, and for young, bright managers (white males, anyway) the sky almost literally was the limit. So it was the good fortune of the 10 white males who made up the "whiz kids" of Ford Motor Co. to hit the job market at the beginning of two decades (1945-1965) when America dominated world business.

While this book's subtitle overstates the men's importance ("founding fathers of American business" conjures images of Vanderbilt, Mellon and the like), many whiz kids played significant roles in shaping a finance-based, cost-cutting managerial ethos that is still very much alive. More important, their lives symbolize the good and bad of America's golden economic age.

Who were these whiz kids? Young men, bright and ambitious, who came together as Army Air Force officers during World War II. These were no brash young pilots (though many were brash). They were the behind-the-scenes guys, many spending the war stateside, who made sure there were sufficient planes where needed, with enough pilots and enough working parts to keep them airborne.

Their leader was Charles B. "Tex" Thornton (who later led the conglomerate Litton Industries). He thought a few of the men who made order out of Air Force chaos should stick together after the war. If they could help defeat Germany and Japan, surely they could whip some big company into shape.

But as John A. Byrne, a senior writer at Business Week, notes in this gripping group biography, "A victory in business . . . is less certain than one in war in which you always fight for closure. In business, there's never an end; it's the art of getting from today to tomorrow, every day."

Thornton and nine of his officers were hired by Henry Ford II to help Ford's then-struggling auto company. They didn't know much about cars, but that was almost the point. Their management ideas centered on getting control of a company by understanding the numbers (production costs, market share, sales estimates, etc.) and making "objective" decisions that only the numbers could justify.

Mr. Byrne's main complaint about numbers-oriented management dominated by the types from finance rather than operations is that it failed to consider quality, which allowed the Japanese to advance on the U.S. car market.

In one telling anecdote from the 1950s, managers at a Ford plant tried to get new paint booths and drying ovens, arguing their antiquated equipment meant cars were being produced with dirt under the surface of the paint job. The plant's controller recalled: ". . . we could not prove by the numbers that the investment in a new paint system would be justified so we could never get the investment approved."

The management philosophy may have been purposely cold and rational (the profile of Robert McNamara, whose slicked-back hair and metal-rimmed eyeglasses covered an incredible intellect, brings to mind Mr. Spock of "Star Trek") but this account of their lives is anything but dry. In a detailed examination (sometimes too detailed), Mr. Byrne has drawn vivid pictures of business success and failure.

The whiz kids didn't have it easy at Ford. Thornton left quickly after a power struggle. Two others also left. But in time, many of them (particularly Mr. McNamara) played a huge role in revitalizing Ford. That success spread their management ideas far and wide.

The most poignant part of the book tells of the fall of F. C. "Jack" Reith. He was the one whiz kid who cared passionately about cars. Made head of the Mercury division in the late 1950s, he looked to be another young man on his way. But when his high-cost models (with stylings taken past excessive into absurd) stumbled badly, he refused to take a demotion and he left Ford. A while later, still an important executive at a large company, he killed himself. It happened on his youngest son's birthday.

Though extreme, Reith's suicide was symbolic of the unbalanced lives of many of the whiz kids. They worked extremely long hours and routinely on weekends, demanding the same of those who worked for them. Their wives were left to raise children mainly on their own, make all decisions on the home front, and play the "corporate wife" role of constant hostess.

The most famous of the whiz kids is Robert McNamara, whose brilliant analyses and foresight are amply demonstrated (he foresaw in the 1950s the need for small, efficient cars and for increased auto safety). His flaws were revealed most clearly in his role as secretary of defense during the Vietnam War. In that case, the "numbers" (body counts, bomb tonnage, etc.) couldn't bring the desired result.

Mr. Byrne has given us a highly readable, if overly long, portrait of interesting men who significantly influenced the way American business operates. They were human, of course, many living too much for business, and despite their insights they promoted a system of management with important limitations.

Mr. Lipschutz is a writer who lives in New York.

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