Wednesday, September 14, 2011

How did Andrew Carnegie Do It?

I suppose I have to confess to a bit of boastfulness in reporting that I made my way through David Nasaw's massive biography of Andrew Carnegie but there is a more creditable reason for presenting the issue here.  Specifically, for all of Nasaw's prodigious effort, the reader is left with a planet-sized hole at the center of his knowledge--the question,  how exactly did Carnegie do it?  What exactly did he contribute that explains his presence at or near the head of the list of all-time richest-ever?  What, that is, aside from getting caught in  the updraft?

The question is not strictly rhetorical.  Grant that luck counts for something--it always pays to be lucky--still it seems to me there is a real puzzle as to what besides luck the great man brought to the table. In wretched oversimplification, here's the story: Carnegie starts off as the classic Horatio Alger story, the nobody from nowhere who pulls himself up by his own bootstraps.  His actual experience on the factory floor lasted less than a year; he quickly demonstrated a knack for self-promotion and a genius for pleasing the boss that moved him almost effortlessly-and in the span of just few years--into a small but comfortable fortune as a Pittsburgh businessman/industrialist.

The thing is, almost as soon as he found the wiggle room, Carnegie decamped from Pittsburgh, never again to set foot in the place except sporadically and (it appears) with the greatest reluctance.  He established himself in New York, and then back in Scotland; he quickly undertook the seemingly unending series of peregrinations that carried him back and forth across the Atlantic, up and down along both continents.

It was, not, in short, the behavior of a hands-on day-to-day manager.  Carnegie did "stay involved" in his businesses--he would surely have seen it that way, at least until he sold out to JP Morgan at the beginning of the 20th Century, only reluctantly relinquishing the tiller then.  But he acted through a fusillade of correspondence (a biographer's dream) advising, cautioning, exhorting and generally hectoring the men on the ground.

And that was most of it.  Well: he probably did do some selling.  He clearly did some lobbying.  And he was the public face of the Carnegie operation (has there ever in history been a more indefatigable self-promoter?).  Still, the question remains: can you really manage a massive industrial empire and turn it into one of the world's great fortunes in absentia?  How can you possibly know, understand, evaluate, interpret what is happening on the ground?

As to the question "can you?" Carnegie surely would have answered "yes, you can."  He saw his own advice as wholly benign: he regarded himself as the kindly, avuncular, mentor and guide, identifying and nurturing talent, and helping them grow into the responsibilities of management.

Maybe so.  He does, indeed, seem to have surrounded himself with effective managers.  The wrench in the works is that his mentees often did not see him as anywhere near as benign and helpful as he saw himself.  The most notorious case would be Henry Clay Frick, his co-venturer  ("partner" seems to strong a word).  Frick was the on-the-ground manager through most of the heroic age of Carnegie steel; he seems always to have resented Carnegie's interference, and to have chafed under the grandiosity of Carnegie's self-regard.  Even more notorious are the two United States Presidents, whom Carnegie undertook to counsel in his role as philanthropist and elder statesman--Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.  The record is clear that they both found him a nuisance and an intermeddler; the remarkable fact is that he seems never to have realized in what low regard they held him.

The sincerity of money: once Carnegie became prodigiously wealthy he gave away money with a free-handedness to match his industrial achievement.  And gave it away well: indeed, Carnegie's record not just for philanthropy but for intelligent philanthropy may be his most remarkable achievement.   Yet the question of his effectiveness as an industrialist remains.  Where would the enterprise have gone without him?  Frick, bitter and resentful, did make a colossal fortune in his own right.  Charles Schwab, Frick's successor, went on to head the steel cartel, but died  broke.  I don't think it is really Nasaw's fault that he can't give a definitive answer to this question.  I'd much rather say that he lays out the evidence that allows us to understand what a puzzle it really is.

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