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Check this out. It’s a 75-year-old story about Ford Motor Company. I never knew it until last night when I’d already written, and now rewritten, the first draft of this newsletter.
The year was 1945. Henry Ford II, just turned 28, had taken over as president and CEO of Ford from his grandfather, the original Henry Ford, who was in failing health.
Henry Ford II’s first order of business was to try to get rid of a group of tough, entrenched executives who had spent the past 25 or 30 years or so busting the company’s unions — “busting” quite literally and violently in some cases.
Top among them was a former Navy boxer named Harry Bennett, who was the head of Ford’s internal security. So the younger Ford recruited a Ford executive named John Bugas, who had been an FBI agent and the head of the bureau’s Detroit office before joining the company, to back him up.
Here’s where it gets wild.
“You dirty old son of a bitch, you did this to me!” Bennett exclaimed at Bugas, after the younger Ford had told him he was reorganizing the executive suite — and Bennett took out a .45 automatic from his desk.
“Don’t make the mistake of pulling the trigger, because I’ll kill you,” responded Bugas, who had in turn pulled the .38 he carried in a shoulder holster. “I won’t miss. I’ll put one right through your heart, Harry.”
According to Steven Watts, author of The People's Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century, Bennett backed down, but went to the basement of the company’s headquarters and burned all of his corporate records.
Then he left the company — and eventually headed to California, where he died in obscurity in 1979.
I stumbled across all this after realizing that today, December 1, is the anniversary of the first day of the Ford moving assembly line, which made its debut in 1913 — so 32 years before the near-gun battle.
Frankly, the .45 vs. .38 is more interesting than what I’d written originally. But it’s worth noting some of the results of the assembly line development:
The time it took to assemble a single Model T dropped from 12 hours to just 93 minutes;
Turnover at Ford skyrocketed, as it turned out workers didn’t want to sit and do the same job repeatedly for nine hours a day;
Barely a month later, Ford reacted by making would-be employees an offer they couldn’t refuse: shorter hours, much more pay, and a heck of a lot more of them.
I actually wrote about this part earlier this year: Ford instituted an eight-hour workday, added profit-sharing, which basically doubled his workers’ pay to about $5 a day, and announced plans to go from 15,000 to 20,000 employees.
Then, about 10,000 job applicants showed up at Highland Park looking for jobs in early January — just a little over a month after the assembly line made its debut. In what we might consider foreshadowing to how things evolved, the company wound up using a fire hose to try to keep the would-be job applicants at bay.
Over the next three decades, as Ford became the largest private company in America (wild to think it didn’t go public until 1956), and as the number of Model Ts built and sold skyrocketed, Ford and its employees were in a sometimes pitched, even violent battle with each other.
The highly controversial, brutal soldier leading the fight on Ford’s side? Actually he was a Navy sailor, but you get the point: the .45-caliber pistol carrying Harry Bennett, whom the younger Ford wanted out of the company ASAP, when he took over.
I like the story. We think we live in a pretty cutthroat business world now, but I can’t think of any other instances where top executives literally wind up pulling guns on each other.
And while I’ve never really been a big “car guy,” I don’t think I’ll look at a Ford quite the same way again.
7 other things worth your time
Los Angeles County, which is the biggest county in the United States, now has a “stay at home order” through Dec. 20, prohibiting all public and private gatherings with anyone outside a single household. Shopping is still allowed, so as this comedian pointed out, you can’t visit your relatives unless you happen to be shopping at the same Target. (CNN, Twitter)
This is unexpected, but I’ll take it: According to an Israeli study, people who have asthma might be 30 percent less likely to contract Covid-19. I suppose this would suggest the odds of getting it are lower, but doesn’t affect earlier reports that the infection is exacerbated by asthma if you do get it. Also, if one person in your group is infected, what are your odds of getting it? An MIT mathematician says he’s got a formula. (Jerusalem Post, Fast Company)
The actor who played Darth Vader — meaning the tall one who literally wore the costume, not James Earl Jones who did his voice — has died. (People)
Whoops. The IRS says it accidentally sent $1,200 stimulus checks to non-Americans living overseas. Also, the Labor Department reportedly “produced inaccurate data and lower-than-appropriate payouts” consistently over the past year—which would seem like a pretty big mistake. (NPR, WSJ $)
People of Earth have wondered whether there might be life on other planets. Now, scientists say they’ve figured out how many planets and systems might have a direct line of sight to Earth — and could theoretically be watching us, even if we can’t yet see them. Their guess is that there are just over 1,000 stars that could have orbiting planets that fall within that range. (Cornell University)
I’ve written about some of the foreign countries trying to get remote workers to move there during the pandemic. Now comes a report that Hawaii, which is not a foreign country (for us Americans), is doing it too. (AP)
For the past five years, musician Billie Eilish has done a feature with Vanity Fair in which she answers the exact same questions: year after year after year. Caveat: I didn’t have time to watch the whole thing, so if there’s something crazy deep in it… (Mashable)
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