The many sides of a pioneering capitalist
By Alex Taylor III

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Henry Ford was (check one): (a) a brilliant inventor, (b) a visionary businessman, (c) a misguided social reformer, (d) a miserable human being.

The correct answer, of course, is (e) all of the above. The confusion is understandable because most historians stumble when they try to fit together all the jagged pieces of Ford's character. But in The People's Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century, historian Steven Watts makes a convincing--and highly readable--case that the pioneering industrialist and the mean-spirited bully were two sides of the same twisted personality.

Entrepreneurs make famously bad managers, but Ford enjoyed an unusually long run before his private demons overwhelmed his practical business sense. He founded Ford Motor in 1903, and Model T production didn't peak until 20 years later. But as Watts points out, Ford had grown indifferent to his creation by the early 1930s. Day-to-day control passed to Harry Bennett, a onetime plant security officer, who ran the company with a goon squad of some 3,000 "street fighters, ex-convicts, [and] underworld figures." When Henry's grandson Henry II grabbed control in 1945, the corporation was near collapse.

Ford's increasingly bizarre behavior--concocting conspiracies, hallucinating enemies, playing tricks on his staff--interests Watts as much as the car business does. And while he lauds Ford as a visionary, moralist, and positive thinker, he also paints him as a bigot and a despot. "Like many uneducated people who become fabulously successful, he was utterly confident in his view of the world and never appreciated what he did not know," writes Watts. "This amalgam of self-confidence and ignorance, insight and narrow-mindedness, was at once his greatest strength and greatest weakness." Because of it, Henry Ford nearly destroyed the colossal company he created. -- Alex Taylor III