The Company He Keeps

My Years with General Motors

by Alfred P. Sloan Jr.
Doubleday, 504 pp., $7.95

Much has been written about the early entrepreneurs and “robber barons” of American economic history; much, too, has been written on the “faceless” managers of modern industry (how many persons today can name the president and board chairman of General Motors?). But we know very little about an intermediate breed of men, the corporate organizers—Theodore N. Vail who created A. T. & T., Walter Teagle of Standard Oil, Alfred P. Sloan of General Motors, who gave the modern corporation its distinctive form. Together with the Church and the Army, the business corporation is one of the unique forms of modern organizational life. And its origin and growth have not been studied systematically.

General Motors is the most awesome and, because of its direct consumer relationship (about 90 per cent of its business is in autos), the best known of the corporate behemoths. In 1962 it had one million stockholders, 600,000 employees, $14.6 billion in sales (about three times the total national income of Greece!), $9.2 billion in assets, and $1.46 billion in profits. Alfred P. Sloan, more than any other person, was responsible for the shape of the corporation and the strategies it pursued. He was president and chief executive officer of the company from 1923 to 1937, and chairman of the board from 1937 to 1956. This is his account of his stewardship.

The book is in two parts, or one might really say there are two books. The first is a sober, engrossing personal account of the evolution of the corporate form, the second is a tedious bit of institutional advertising in which the various G.M. staff departments (research, styling, personnel, overseas) are described in boring detail, and all the various hands given their due mention.* Thus it is both the history of one man’s policy decisions (which, as the saying goes, is worth the price of the entire book), and some corporation puffery, which can be ignored.

Few auto companies, before World War I, made a complete auto. The manufacturer was usually an assembler who bought parts and accessories and put them together. As the industry grew a shakedown was inevitable. General Motors was put together as a company between 1908 and 1910 from about twenty-five smaller firms by an ebullient stock promoter named William C. Durant. From time to time, other companies were brought in. This, in fact, is how Sloan entered General Motors. He had been the general manager of the Hyatt Roller Bearing Company, which in 1918 was absorbed by G.M., and for five years he was the head of United Motors Company, a G.M. subsidiary consisting of companies that manufactured accessories for G.M. This early feature of General Motors, its own organization sprawl so to speak, posed the great problem, later, for Sloan, of creating an efficient and coordinated structure.

Sloan’s complaint against Durant, which comes through the courteous tone that marks his treatment of all persons in the book, was Durant’s informal way of doing business, of his acting “impulsively.” It…

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