On The Masters of Enterprise: American Business History and the People Who Made It by H.W. Brands (2003)

Book coverI picked this course in the Modern American Scholar line in April, and I loaded parts of it into the car for when three of our yet four headed to Arkansas for a conference, but, of course, Arkansas which means narrow, curvy two lane highways, so I could not pay much attention then. But I’ve been inventing enough reasons to drive the main vehicle with the CD changer in it to listen to the courses.

This set is 14 lectures on 7 CDs that nominally tells the stories of a dozen entrepreneurs and the businesses they built, but they actually focus on prevailing market trends and the changes in American life over the centuries and how the entrepreneurs took advantage of that. So the actual biographies of the people are generally just a paragraph or two in the lecture.

Lectures include:

  • The Business of America
  • John Jacob Astor: From Furs to Real Estate
  • Cyrus McCormick: The Business of Agriculture
  • Cornelius Vanderbilt and Jay Gould: Speculating on America
  • Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller: An Obsession for Efficiency
  • J.P. Morgan: The Triumph of the Money Man
  • Henry Ford and Alfred P. Sloan: Capturing the Dream
  • Walt Disney: The Business of Fantasy
  • Robert Woodruff: As American as Coke
  • Ray Kroc: The Industrialization of Eating
  • Sam Walton: Will the Real Uncle Same Please Stand Up?
  • Mary Kay Ash: What Do Women Want?
  • Andrew Grove and Bill Gates: Intel (and Microsoft) Inside
  • The Past and Future of American Business

I rather got a lot of interesting things out of it. One, the drive for innovation in the early years in the United States: It had a lot of land, and few people to work it compared to Europe. So that drove innovations in the agricultural machinery (such as Cyrus McCormick’s wheat harvester). The car makers thought demand for their product would be limited to the number of people who could afford to have drivers for their cars; Henry Ford saw that people would want to drive their own cars. And after the car was invented and people were living in cities, they had leisure time for Disney and whatnot. The inclusion of Mary Kay of Mary Kay Cosmetics is a bit of an outlier in the list because the professor wanted to include a woman entrepreneur, but there were not many to choose from and none succeeded like the men listed (although my beautiful wife has a Mary Kay dealer whose products but burnish her natural beauty). He also highlights that American business is very often speculative in ways that European and other business environments or mindsets are not.

So it’s a good survey of business history, and it does acknowledge one of, if not the business conundrums of American business: the role of government in business. The government was hands-off early in our history, but certainly started intervening more and more from the late 19th century on. Although the professor thinks that the government’s hand has been a balancing influence, staving off panics after the Great Depression, the course is dated 2003. The last 20 years have certainly seen more and more overt government intervention into the economy and probably to a deleterious effect.

But I enjoyed the course as a history course, not an economics course. That is, telling the stories from our ancestors and not too much trying to steer us to a glorious future that our betters have picked out for us.

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