You can never underestimate the power of business empires. The documentary The Men Who Built America is the most daunting and inspiring thing I have seen on TV. If you haven’t seen this documentary, Google it, beg for it, find it and watch it by all means. It is a historical documentary of the industrialisation of the United States of America and was built around five entrepreneurs who forever changed their industries, their country and the world.
The men, whether by intent or accident, placed the United States on the pedestal that she still enjoys as world economic power, leading in innovation and technological advancements. The documentary is an insider’s view to their persons, their enterprises, their operations, how they handled competitors and regulatory bodies and the inner workings of their minds.
My intent here is to simply do a summary of that documentary and I will identify certain traits that are common to the men that history agrees built America through their businesses. These traits should give a road map on how to stir Nigeria to greatness via enterprise.
While some men have also contributed in building Nigeria, I think some aspects of their building plans were defective. This defect is foundational and was caused by errors at the onset of construction. I posit that the materials used for building Nigeria were chosen based on religious and ethnic concerns rather than on competence, character and conscious efforts to identify and bring forward the best man or woman for the job.
The military boys fancied themselves better project managers, took over construction and eventually in 1999 permanently (hopefully) gave jurisdiction and authority back to the people. By then, though, great damage had been inflicted on the building. That is the past; progress is made looking and moving forward.
The documentary was built around five entrepreneurs – Cornelius Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, JP Morgan and Henry Ford. Cornelius Vanderbilt was a street boy who got into the shipping business and moved up from owning one shop to building a fleet, moving cargo across the United States and the rest of the world. He sold all his ships and invested in the railway business when the railway lines appeared as, he thought rightly, the future of cargo movement. His gamble and vision paid off as he profited immensely from his investments.
John D. Rockefeller, who was reputed to be a man of faith, was the most ruthless of the entrepreneurs. He standardised and had the most effective distribution system for the sale of kerosene, at the time used to power lamps before the advent of electricity. A maverick, his tactics and business acumen ran several competitors out of business and bankrupted allies who demanded better deals.
Andrew Carnegie dominated the steel business. He built this up out of sheer will, intelligence, persistence and imagination. He fought off competition and battled for the soul of his company both internally and externally and he would later sell his company to JP Morgan for $480 million in 1901, an equivalent of $370 billion as at 2015 dollar value.
JP Morgan was a banker’s banker. A deal maker with eyes always on the big picture, JP Morgan was so powerful and wealthy that random statements from him were enough to influence the stock exchange. JP was, at several times, bailing out the United States Treasury with direct cash infusion.
While Edison is credited with inventing electricity, it was JP Morgan who bankrolled his experiments. His (JP Morgan) genius accounts for the commercialisation of electricity.
Henry Ford today would have been referred to as a social entrepreneur, an idealist, interested in the greater good and putting workers welfare above profits – something that was unpopular in that era of doing business. He was the first person to standardise production to what is referred today as the assembly line production method. He was the first to manufacture cars and price them at an affordable point within reach of the masses.
So what lessons can one learn from these men that history recognises built America? I will identify and expound my thoughts on a few. Hopefully we can learn a thing or two that would impact our businesses well enough to make them impact our country.
Vision for the entrepreneur goes beyond the fancy word on the collage placed in your business’ reception area. How do you see your enterprise in a few years? What is the biggest success scenario imaginable? What is the picture you see when, to borrow a Nigerian parlance, you have arrived? Many times, for the entrepreneur, this picture is so big and unrealistic that we never want to talk about it so as to avoid being ridiculed. That is your vision. Guard it and replay it in your mind constantly.
These men, in their various businesses, took no prisoners. They dominated their industries and became near-monopolies. I often ask a question when I teach strategy. Do you want to be a small fish in a big pond or a big fish in a small pond? It pays to be a big fish in a small pond. As the big fish, you determine how resources are allocated in the pond, you determine who comes into the pond and under what conditions. You can also increase the size of the pond and grow accordingly with it, etc. In business, aim to play in niche sectors where you can become a force to reckon with and eventually dominate.
Or call it persistence or staying power. If you are not in it for the long term, don’t even bother. The men in question committed lifelong to their enterprises. They survived fierce competitions and near bankruptcies. If you jump from one venture to another every two years, you aren’t ready yet. Now I hear you ask: What if I am an ideas’ person? I constantly generate business ideas. I advise you to build on one of those ideas and grow it significantly over a three-year period before attempting to extend yourself.
All these entrepreneurs played to their strengths. Stop doing things you loathe, for which you are not gifted. Downplay your weaknesses and outsource them. Adopt and live by the 80/20 rule. 20% of your efforts will produce 80% of your results. Your task is to find and nurture the 20% activity. Ensure to play in the 20% zone as often as you can.
All the entrepreneurs were sticklers for continuous improvement. When JP Morgan financed Thomas Edison’s electricity innovation, it threatened Rockefeller’s kerosene business. He responded by innovating and producing premium motor spirit, or petrol, which opened up a new industry and revenue stream all together. Innovate or die, an easy way to stay innovative as an entrepreneur is to be a constant learner. Have the curiosity of a seven year-old and to ask questions. Really, question everything.
While your intent may not necessarily be to build Nigeria directly through politics or the like, build up your business to such levels that will give you a massive influence in the industry where you play in. Employing thousands of people and contributing to the economy of Nigeria financially is social responsibility.