Tuesday, April 3, 2012

"None of our men are 'experts'."

The Amazon Jungle is a pretty forbidding place, swallowing golden cities and guys with wimpy names and never spitting them out. Even Teddy Roosevelt found it could whip his tail, and he was so tough he got his face carved on a mountain! So what made Henry Ford think he could tame it? Maybe some people have more money than sense, or maybe they just get a little too full of themselves. Of course, Greg Grandin is more than happy to tell us all about it in Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City.

Henry Ford liked to boast that he didn't employ experts, because experts always know "why something cannot be done." "We have most unfortunately found it necessary to get rid of a man as soon as he thinks himself an expert - because no one ever considers himself expert if he really knows his job" (pgs 147-148). Most of that was just talk, but Ford certainly had good luck taking competent people and giving them the opportunity to shine. But when it came to Fordlandia, he should have consulted more experts.

Fearing that a European rubber cartel could threaten his manufacturing processes, Ford sought to control his own rubber supply. He decided to establish a rubber tree plantation along the Amazon instead of Africa because of a friendlier business climate. The vast rubber plantations in Southeast Asia came from seeds smuggled out of Brazil so the logic was that the trees would thrive best in the land where they were native. Also, frustrated in his attempts to establish a type of utopian community in the US, he wanted to show that his ideas would work and bring prosperity to a downtrodden people in the jungle.

But he never consulted any experts, or at least people properly familiar with cultivating rubber trees. The natural fungi and pests which kept rubber trees in check in the Amazon didn't exist in Asia, so Asian plantations were possible and highly profitable whereas South American plantations just didn't work out. Also, the people of the Amazon didn't adapt well to the regimented assembly line style of work that had served Ford so well in the United States - there simply wasn't the same kind of economy or the same culture. Furthermore, Ford insisted on creating his own view of civilized society in Fordlandia, including the same style of homes and buildings which were often highly impractical, and sometimes dangerously lethal!

Mr. Grandin presents not only the history of Ford in Brazil and Michigan, but the context of what was happening in the bigger world. His narrative also encompasses lots of relevant peripheral information as well, and all told in a very interesting manner that adds to the story rather than detracting from it. The only negative was the sense that things weren't always told in a chronological order, which was a little confusing. There also seems to be a bit of a sneering attitude toward a lot of Ford's well-intentioned but misguided philosophies, and he seems to blame Ford (at least in part) for the sad state of the Amazon now (deforestation, poverty, etc.) which seemed rather unfair. But it was still an excellent history and loaded with lots of b&w photos and my complaints are minor. I really enjoyed this book and it seems an excellent choice for business classes to illustrate many of the mistakes corporations often make.

Oh, and by the way, Henry Ford never actually went to Brazil himself - how's that for hubris!

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