Life Startup Entrepreneurship Life Lessons
1984: Making America Great Again. Commonsensism of a World-Class CEO
“Your timing stinks,” I said. “We’ve just made a billion eight for the second year in a row. That’s three and a half billion in the past two years. But mark my words, Henry. You may never see a billion eight again. And do you know why? Because you don’t know how the fuck we made it in the first place!”
While walking among chickens and cows down a narrow, dirty, and dark street in Calcutta (India) full of tables with old books in English, I found a copy that caught my attention. The cover featured a mature man in his early 60s, wearing a light blue shirt with white sleeves and gold cufflinks, a silver metal watch, and a black tie. He was leaning back in a chair, facing a (I assume) walnut desk and his back to a neat wooden wall. He had his hands behind his head as a bold gesture, and what struck me the most was a particular grimace, a mischievous half smile under classic eighties thin, thick-lensed glasses. The year 2005 was ending. Two decades after its publication, I was discovering the autobiography of Lee Iacocca, more than 16,500 kilometers from Buenos Aires.
That photo was the first slap to the jaw to open the book and begin to meet an icon of Reagan’s stature, who endured communism and neoliberalism alike, who grappled with the power of Japanese industry and probably wiggled to the rhythm of Madonna’s Like a Virgin. However, it was two phrases from the back cover, such as an uppercut and a cross, that threw me eagerly to read it:
“Your time sucks,” I said. “We just won one billion eight for the second year in a row. That’s 3.5 billion in the last two years. But remember my words, Henry. You may never see a billion eight again. And do you know why? Because you don’t know how the fuck we did it in the first place!”
“Hi guys, I have a shotgun at your head. I have thousands of jobs available at seventeen dollars an hour. I have none at 20 dollars. You have until the morning to make a decision. If you don’t help me, I will file bankruptcy in the morning and you will be out of work.”
I thought: a person fired after 32 years of work who blurts that out to Henry Ford II, the master and lord of a flagship company, one of the most important businessmen in the world and continuator of a dynasty of economic and political power… You have my attention! Assuming, furthermore, that what was expressed must have been even worse than what was published.
Likewise, a leader who speaks with such vehemence to trade unionists, masters of realpolitik, that has to be an essential character, someone worth reading about, one with balls the size of a V8 engine.
Fearless, I opened the book, circumvented the trappings of the platitudes, the infomercial advertising sale, the marketing tricks of some of its pages and read, read and read. I paid a few rupees and sat and went all in. Reading addiction favored haste, and like a hamburger eaten by a sweet tooth, what came in came out like a flash. In a few hours nearly 400 pages flew away. I had seen the life of a man like one who eats a snack of potato chips and Doritos. Nothing subsisted in my mind from the miles of words, ideas and experience except the name and the face. They were still the BC times (Before Cellular) without social networks or distractions or so much voracity for the immediate. Good ‘ol times!
A few days ago (fifteen years later) I met again with his bold gesture, his particular grimace, his mischievous half smile under classic eighties thin glasses, thick-lensed that looked at me from an old library. When I saw Lee I smiled and I imagine I made the same sly face he did and I understood that as for everything in life, excess is not beneficial. I gave myself a new opportunity to understand the depth of life by reading like someone who prepares a plate of food with time, care, and judiciousness. This is how I slowly talked with Iacocca again and I was very pleasantly surprised.
Having time to read without distractions does not necessarily mean that we read, learn, understand, and improve. Reading is listening to what the other wants to tell me with his words. Notice them. Reading is incorporating new ideas, renewing the mind, correcting mistakes, and increasing meaning. My problem is that wherever I am, I am always stirring something to read, like a Brainy Smurf who thinks he is the smartest in the village and a thoroughgoing expert, but the reality is often the opposite. Accumulating books read does not make knowledge, as accumulating wealth does not make happiness. Overthinking is still a worse vice than greed. Pride is swelling and gluttony gobbling texts, arming oneself with arguments, hypotheses and speeches does not make us advantageous. Most of the time, it makes us arrogant and prevents us from executing quickly, because we have too many options.
If we knew how to act without exaggerating or prostituting the intellectual debate, we would be an outstanding crowd. But there are few who master this art of common sense, very few. The practical, the versatile and agile are an exception, and for this reason they are exceptional. Finding one of these individuals is an enormous opportunity and a great gift to learn and exercise humility. Do something! he endorses us with his experience chest.
This I found in my second meeting with Lee Iacocca.
Start your engines
The autobiography has 28 chapters. And like great stories, it is better to start at the end. That chapter is entitled Making America Great Again, and, beyond his own words, history showed that he collaborated from his place to make it so. 1984 was not George Orwell’s dystopian fictional political novel because by 1984 Iacocca had led Chrysler, America’s third-largest automaker, from the brink of bankruptcy to success. In addition, he had managed to pay off a huge $ 1.2 billion government loan seven years before its due. And in that year Chrysler was back on its feet and Iacocca had published the most successful management book in history up to that point, his autobiography. So good was his management and so famous that year that the news then reported an alleged run for the White House.
Perhaps the political campaign slogan used by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and by Dondald Trump in his 2016 presidential campaign would have been better for him. Perhaps that is how his compatriots would have seen why 1984 was not going to be 1984, paraphrasing the famous Apple commercial. Leaving aside the counterfactual experiments, returning to our history and projecting to the present, I believe that it is necessary to detail the lessons of this reading, its best phrases and blows and what I learned and I think I can improve. Not just the Brainy Smurf like me, but also the Smurfette, Papa Smurf, Clumsy Smurf, Grouchy Smurf, Hefty Smurf, Greedy Smurf, Jokey, Chef and Vanity Smurfs wherever they are on the globe.
The Easter Egg of the book is that it has the key to management (and life). Although published almost four decades ago and with a clear cultural, historical and geographical difference, it deserves to be read to learn how to manage, to ask uncomfortable questions, to understand the context, to know when to vomit vehement phrases and to calm down and remember that nobody, but absolutely nobody can see and predict the future. But above all, the book shows how to value the most important thing in life: family.
Someone like Lee Iacocca has numerous imitable elements. His personality had bits of cheekiness, a lot of cheerfulness, and also some teaching. He explains that the mentality when it comes to work has to incorporate more of ‘How can I help?’ and less of ‘That’s not my job!’ Understand that to achieve success you need equality of sacrifice and then have equality of profits. These concepts are key in the book.
In order to better understand situations, it is necessary to know the starting point and correctly interpret the present. That seems to be the best way to prepare the way for the future. Why does the country that produced Walter Chrysler, Alfred Sloan, and the original Henry Ford have so much trouble making and selling cars competitively? Why does the country of Andrew Carnegie have so much trouble competing in steel? Why does the country of Thomas Edison have to import most of its phonographs, radios, television sets, Videorecorders, and other forms of consumer electronics? Why does the country of John D. Rockefeller have oil problems? Why does the country of Eli Whitney have to import so many of its machine tools? Why does the country of Robert Fulton and the Wright brothers face such heavy competition in transportation equipment? What became of the industrial machine that was once the envy and the hope of the rest of the world? How, in less than forty years, did we manage to dismantle the “arsenal of democracy” and wind up with an economy that is flabby in so many critical areas?
‘At some point in our recent past America lost sight of its true source of power and greatness. From a nation whose strength has always flowed from investments in the production and consumption of goods, we have somehow turned into a nation in love with investing in paper. ‘
‘And so our biggest companies are pouring huge sums of money into buying up the stock of other companies. Where is all this capital ending up? In new factories? In new production equipment? In product innovation? Some of it is, but not very much. Most of that money is ending up in banks and other financial institutions who are turning around and lending it out to countries such as Poland, Mexico, and Argentina.’
After its onslaught, he proposes a six-point program for industrial policies:
1. Energy independence
2. Specific limits on imports in critical industries
3. You cannot spend more than you enter
4. Encourage specific races or specializations
5. Incentives for research and development
6. Long-term program to rebuild commercial arteries
And with a hint of irony:
‘I don’t know when we are going to wake up, but I hope it’s soon. Otherwise, within a few years our economic arsenal is going to consist of little more than drive-in banks, hamburger joints, and videogame arcades. Is that really where we want America to be by the end of the twentieth century?
People say to me: “You’re a roaring success. How did you do it?” I go back to what my parents taught me. Apply yourself. Get all the education you can, but then, by God, do something! Don’t just stand there, make something happen. It isn’t easy, but if you keep your nose to the grindstone and work at it, it’s amazing how in a free society you can become as great as you want to be. And, of course, also be grateful for whatever blessings God bestows on you.
The ability to concentrate and to use your time well is everything if you want to succeed in business — or almost anywhere else, for that matter. Ever since college I’ve always worked hard during the week while trying to keep my weekends free for family and recreation.
“Boy, last year I worked so hard that I didn’t take any vacation.” It’s actually nothing to be proud of. I always feel like responding: “You dummy. You mean to tell me that you can take responsibility for an $ 80 million project and you can’t plan two weeks out of the year to go out with your family and have some fun?”
When Iacocca wonders what happened to the country and its booming industry looking back, he lists the people who made America great. It is not at all striking that he could not see that while he wrote that with a critical eye, other leaders emerged that marked the following decades: Bill Gate, Steve Jobs, Warren Buffet, Jeff Bezos and the imported Elon Musk of South Africa. ‘There can’t be a Silicon Valley without a Detroit’. In my understanding it is the system and how people take advantage of it that made — and makes — America great. Politicians are bureaucrats, they are the referees of the party. And that reality, so different from that of Latin American countries, is what made Lee Iacocca’s obscure prophecies not come true. He who thought so much of people did not think of them looking forward.
Finally, in the words of Nicola Iacocca, father of the author:
Whenever times were tough in our family, it was my father who kept our spirits up. No matter what happened, he was always there for us. He was a philosopher, full of little sayings and homilies about the ways of the world. His favorite theme was that life has its ups and downs and that each person has to come to terms with his own share of misery. “You’ve got to accept a little sorrow in life,” he’d tell me when I was upset about a bad grade in school or some other disappointment. “You’ll never really know what happiness is unless you have something to compare it to.”