Thursday, January 11, 2007

How Henry Made it Somebody Else's Problem

(Cross-posted from CreditSlips)

Since we are (I am) on the subject of literary bankruptcy, I can’t resist a reprint of a passage from John Dos Passos’ USA, which, for my money, really is the great American novel. Dos Passos interweaves his fictional trilogy with semi-documentary historical vignettes. Here, in “Tin Lizzie,” from 1919 (the second volume), he tells how Henry Ford survived the collapse that followed World War I:

…In 1918 [Ford] had borrowed on notes to buy out his minority stockholders for the picayune sum of seventyfive million dollars.

In February, 1920, he needed cash to pay off some of those notes that were coming due. A banker is supposed to have called him and offered him every facility if the bankers’ representative could be made a member of the board of directors. Henry Ford handed the banker his hat, and went about raising money his own way:

he shipped every car and part he had in his plant to his dealers and demanded immediate cash payment. Let the other fellow do the borrowing had always been a cardinal principle. He shut down production and canceled all orders from the supplyfirms. Many dealers were ruined, many supplyfirms failed, but when he reopened his plant, he owned it absolutely, the way a man owns an unmortgaged farm with the taxes paid up.

…in 1922 Henry Ford had sold one million three hundred and thirty-two thousand two hundred and nine tin lizzies; he was the richest man in the world.

My dad managed credit bureaus back in the 30s and 40s, when it was still a small-town drugstore counter kind of business. I remember him telling me the story of how Henry solved his own problem by making it somebody else’s problem. I don’t think my dad ever read Dos Passos; maybe he saw it at first hand.

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