After the founder leaves: how long are the shadows?

In some companies, the founder is a key player who can’t be replaced; in others, they can be replaced with surprising ease; and in still others, they cast a shadow long after they’re gone, for better or worse.

Steve Jobs

The usual case study is Apple. Steve Jobs first pushed his friends into marketing and building the first personal computers; then, when he became a liability to the business and was sidelined, he pushed a group of engineers, technicians, and designers into creating the first mass-produced computers with a graphic user interface. There was absolute genius in both the hardware and software, and while Jobs wasn’t responsible for most of the breakthroughs, the people around him did credit him with demanding more and providing key ideas. He wasn’t an Edison, but he was an inspiration to the geniuses around him.

After Jobs left, Apple foundered, largely because the professional managers who followed had no particular focus or vision, and applied generic marketing and strategy techniques to an unconventional business. He returned, slashed, burned, and spurred innovation (again, without, as far as anyone can tell, personally creating anything particularly innovative), and led Apple to become the company that takes literally half of all smartphone profits, and sets more than its share of notebook and desktop computer trends. Without Jobs, now due to his untimely and partly self-inflicted death from cancer (like Edison, he had peculiar ideas about health), Apple is still steaming ahead, but many believe the company has lost its way — among other things, pushing “thin” ahead of usability, and dropping key features in its hardware.

One can look at three automakers for another set of stories. First, at General Motors, the founder was the irresponsible, irrepressible William C. Durant, a colorful man who was always buying more than he could manage; he was ejected, worked with Louis Chevrolet to create a new car company, and bought his way back into GM with Chevrolet, before being ejected again to save the company. Afterwards, GM largely followed not Durant, but the more placid Pierre DuPont, who stabilized the huge outfit with accounting controls and stable management.


Henry Ford’s shadow theoretically falls over the company he created (along with the Dodge Brothers), but Ford’s core values disappeared when he retired (mass-producing identical cheap and easy-to-make cars with no annual changes; promising high wages and paying low ones; forcing his religion on his workers; and pushing for “the final solution” to Jews). Much of that is due to the work of his son in reversing a course which seemed to lead to bankruptcy; Ford’s sales had been overtaken by both General Motors and Chrysler Corporation by then.

The Dodge Brothers were the antithesis of Henry Ford, even when they were building much of the Ford car for him. They treated their employees well, didn’t try to dictate their personal lives, had no known prejudices, and believed in making an innovative, high-quality product, albeit still in mass production. The brothers, though, died only a few short years after creating a company that was starting to challenge Ford and GM’s dominance of the auto industry; while their presence seem to have directed the organization for a while, when Chrysler Corporation bought it, the Dodge Brothers’ impact seems to have essentially ended (along with most of the unique Dodge Brothers engineering — for better or worse).

Then there was Walter Chrysler, who took over Maxwell, fixed its processes, and enabled three engineering leaders to reshape the company’s products and research-and-engineering methods. Walter Chrysler, by all accounts an excellent turnaround leader and a likable tycoon, was a benevolent leader by most accounts, from his direct reports to the lowest-ranking employee — all of whom can be seen in one photo. After he left Chrysler, though, it does not seem that employees asked “what would Walter do?” — instead, life went on. The trio of engineers he brought in (Fred Zeder, Owen Skelton, and Carl Breer) had a longer-lasting impact, and for many years Chrysler was known as “the engineering company” — but even as Carl Breer wrote his reminisces, that was starting to fade.

As for Jonathan Dixon Maxwell himself, though he created the first Maxwell cars, it’s hard to find out what happened to him afterwards. Maxwell-Briscoe and Maxwell Motors went through numerous ownership changes over its brief lifetime, and it seems likely that neither engineer Jonathan Maxwell nor Benjamin Briscoe had much of an impact on the company after they left.

Indeed, none of the automakers’ founders made as large an impact as they theoretically should have. By the late 1960s, aside from a few small groups and an influx of electronics specialists from the military/rocketry group, Chrysler was not clearly different from GM to outsiders, or, indeed, to many on the inside. These days, people who were attracted from Chrysler to Ford or GM have told me, “Same place, different name on the door.” Technology, market forces, and time reshaped each company and erased the initial intents and methods of the founders.

These stories are mainly food for thought; each situation is different. That’s the problem of using case studies — reality is often so complex that major causes are hidden, or minor contributors are blown out of proportion. What are your thoughts on these companies and their founders?

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