In 1986, British writer Robert Lacey, author of biographies of Sir Walter Raleigh, Henry VIII, Princess Diana, and Grace Kelly, published what was perhaps his most ambitious work: Ford: The Men and the Machine, a history of the family-controlled Ford Motor Company. In the final pages, Lacey describes how, in the fall of 1984, he sat in the office of Henry Ford II (CEO since 1960 and grandson of the founder) and watched him methodically feed documents into a paper shredder. Lacey noted that these documents had “to do with history, the letters and reports and memoranda which [made] up the record of his years in the company.” Pressed by Lacey to explain why he was so intent on destroying history, Ford responded, “What I’ve done in my life is nobody’s business.”
That view was consistent with the sentiment once expressed by his grandfather: “History is bunk!” It also underlines the problems that writers of corporate history encounter. Business leaders are notoriously uninterested in reflecting on the past. Neither are they likely to be tolerant of a “warts and all” biography of their company. And this tunnel vision is reflected in the curricula of graduate business schools, most of which do not offer courses on the history of business.
Nonetheless, the great stories of business success, failure, influence, and drama manage to survive. Even the Ford Motor Company preserved thousands of documents: a cornucopia of letters, contracts, photographs, and business records covering every aspect of the company’s history, including the controversial operation of its German subsidiary during World War II. This constitutes probably the most extensive archive in the business world, and it is lodged in the Henry Ford Museum near the company’s Dearborn, Mich., headquarters. Interest in Ford has sparked 94 books, including Douglas Brinkley’s Wheels for the World: Henry Ford, His Company, and a Century of Progress, 1903–2003 (Viking, 2003), described by Rob Norton in this magazine as a “company history that’s a pleasure to read, consistently insightful, and informative on several levels.” (See “Have You Read about Ford Lately?” s+b, Winter 2003.)
In the end, every company has a story to tell, often a profound one — and even when the leaders are vehemently opposed to it, those stories have a way of getting out. When they do, these broad-based tales of enterprise, judgment, and mishap can be compelling and enlightening for anyone to read. And they can provide inspiration for people seeking to navigate difficult times, as so many of us are today.
As a journalist, I have been writing about business for 55 years, and I bring to the subject a passionate interest in history. When I enter my office at home, I face a wall of shelves that hold about 250 corporate biographies. Most of them, of course, are not very high-quality works. Corporate histories are generally hagiographies, funded and brought to fruition by the companies themselves, often commissioned by the PR department to flatter the leaders of the moment. They depend for accuracy on the permission of the company being profiled, and on access to its files and people. They typically have little impact on business practice. And they often go unread; I have rarely heard of a corporate history that makes the bestseller list.
A few great corporate histories, however, have transcended the limitations of the genre. They are fascinating, rewarding epics. These stories can instill pride in employees, and they tell the rest of us a great deal about a company’s strategy, its successes and failures, and the usually intertwined fates of the founders’ families. They can also illuminate the times — the social, political, and economic milieu that a company both is shaped by and helps shape. Most of all, I cherish the human stories they tell.