My Years with General Motors by Alfred P. Sloan Jr.

“Confidence and caution formed my attitude in 1920. We could not control the environment, or predict its changes precisely, but we could seek the flexibility to survive fluctuations in business.”

My Years with General Motors is one of the greatest business books ever written. It is not a corporate narrative or business history as much as it is about the philosophy of a corporation or the story behind it, without which, there cannot be a corporation that stands the test of time.

The book was written by perhaps one of the greatest CEOs in history, Alfred Sloan, who had been at the helm at General Motors for many decades. Sloan had actually written a short article for the Fortune magazine in 1953, chronicling his years at General Motors, but one of the writers at Fortune, John McDonald, saw so much potential in the article that he convinced Sloan to write a full-fledged book instead. And that was how this book came to be.

Sloan’s days at General Motors began way back in 1916 when he was made the Vice President of the company because of a corporate takeover. He was given important duties and was promoted to the board soon as the then Chairman, W. A. Durant saw great potential in the young man.

Durant was a visionary and a great entrepreneur, but he was no manager. Sloan, on the other hand, was the perfect manager. So, the duo struck up a profitable partnership. Following the WW1, the General Motors board lost faith in Durant and decided to hand over the reins of the company to Sloan, with whom they felt safer. Sloan made the President in 1922, and became the Chairman in 1937.Sloan would prove to be one of the management masters of the twentieth century.

The book has great stories such as how under Sloan, GM took on the challenge of Ford’s legendary Model T. The battle between Sloan and Henry Ford was an interesting one. The two couldn’t have presented a more contrasting picture – one a gung-ho swashbuckling entrepreneur and the other a staid, boring career manager.

But eventually as it turned out, Sloan’s better organizational skills won the day as GM edged out Ford as the #1 automobile company in the United States. One of Sloan’s ideas was to consolidate all car brands as he felt that there were far too many car brands at GM. He created the idea of a car being for a lifetime.

There was low-priced Chevrolet for the first time car buyer and the Cadillac for the richer and older buyer. Eventually, because of the discipline instilled by Sloan, GM became the largest manufacturer of cars and trucks and had been so until recently, when it was pushed out because of mistakes made by later CEOs, who were nowhere in the same league as Sloan.

How successful was Sloan? Well – he was in charge of GM from 1922 to 1962. In that time, the company grew from 25,000 workers to 600,000. By the time he retired, GM made 4,491,000 cars a year and its total assets grew from $134 million in 1922 to $9.2 billion in 1962. What Sloan did at General Motors was quite remarkable, and this is his story, in his own words.

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