Billy, Alfred, and General Motors: The Story of Two Unique Men, a Legendary Company, and a Remarkable Time in American History

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"You couldn’t find two more different men. Billy Durant was the consummate salesman, a brilliant wheeler-dealer with grand plans, unflappable energy, and a fondness for the high life. Alfred Sloan was the intellectual, an expert in business strategy and management, master of all things organizational. Together, this odd couple built perhaps the most successful enterprise in U.S. history, General Motors, and with it an industry that has come to define modern life throughout the world. Their story is full of timeless lessons, cautionary tales, and inspiration for business leaders and history buffs alike.

Billy, Alfred, and General Motors is the tale not just of the two extraordinary men of its title but also of the formative decades of twentieth-century America, through two world wars and sea changes in business, industry, politics, and culture. The book includes vivid, warts-and-all portraits of the legends of the golden age of the automobile, from “Crazy” Henry Ford, Ransom Olds, and Charles Nash to the brilliant but uncredited David Dunbar Buick and Cadillac founder Henry Leland.

The impact of Durant and Sloan on their contemporaries and their industry is matched only by the powerful legacy of their improbable and incredible partnership. Characters, events, and context -- all are brought skillfully and passionately to life in this meticulously researched and supremely readable book."

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“This fresh look at early GM is timely and interesting.”

-Corp! (Detroit)

“Pelfrey's work is both entertaining and instructive...[the] book does not predict GM's future. But it masterfully tells about GM's past and, in doing so, helps explain what recently went wrong at the company.”

-Washington Post

“entertaining and instructive… masterfully tells about GM's past and... helps explain what recently went wrong at the company.”

-Washington Post

“…easy to read and extremely well researched.”

-World Business Review

Jack Smith
"Every person who is interested in the building of the American automobile industry must read this book. Bill Pelfrey has done a great job researching the early years of Billy Durant and Alfred Sloan and the very different roles they played in the history of General Motors."
retired Chairman and CEO, General Motors Corporation
Dallas Morning News
Terry Box: "I liked the book’s bare-knuckled stories about the industry’s early characters scribbling engine designs on whiskey-stained napkins."
Washington Post
"Pelfrey's work is both entertaining and instructive...[the] book does not predict GM's future. But it masterfully tells about GM's past and, in doing so, helps explain what recently went wrong at the company. By extrapolation, it also shows why GM is taking the correct steps today to right itself even as it appears to be dancing on the edge of disaster."
Gerald C. Meyers
"To understand where General Motors is going, you must first understand where it has been. The who and why of it all is beautifully described, anecdote by anecdote, by Pelfrey in this fascinating read. Magnificently researched."
Professor of Management, University of Michigan (Ross) Business School; former Chairman and CEO, American Motors Corporation
Ira M. Millstein
"The challenges faced by Durant, Sloan, and others in the automotive industry 100 years ago are as relevant as ever today: managing through varying leadership styles; ensuring the ability to adapt to a changing business environment; maintaining cash flow during downturns. This book highlights both their successes and failures, and it should be read by managers everywhere."
Senior Partner, Weil, Gotshal and Manges; Visiting Professor in Competitive Enterprise and Strategy, Yale School of Management; Special Adviser to the World Bank on Corporate Governance
David E. Cole
"This book is particularly timely, with the auto industry in a period of extreme turbulence that features a restructuring of General Motors, as well as other icons of times gone by. In a sense, we may be reliving in the 21st century the auto drama of the 20th century portrayed so well by Bill Pelfrey. The author’s outstanding writing and research skills are evident throughout and make this one of the most important and fascinating books I’ve read in a very long time."
Chairman of the Center for Automotive Research
John G. Smale
"Anyone interested in the current story of General Motors should read this engrossing description of the beginnings and early growth of this largest of all America’s businesses. Billy, Alfred, and the General is an important work on the history of the automobile industry."
retired Chairman and CEO, Procter and Gamble Company; former Chairman, General Motors Corporation
Foreword magazine
"The author tells an amazing story...illuminating, yet little known, saga of the clash between the eternal dreamers, inventors, tinkers, and salesmen at the dawn of the twentieth century."
September/October 2006
World Business Review
"..easy to read and extremely well researched."
Library Journal
Reporter, novelist (The Big V), and former director of executive communications at General Motors, Pelfrey has written a compelling account of the early years of the storied company, which is currently verging on bankruptcy. GM founder William "Billy" Durant, a high school dropout and impetuous schemer, was the opposite of aloof and meticulous company vice president and board member Alfred Sloan. Pelfrey's skillful use of primary and secondary sources lends authenticity to his retelling of Durant and Sloan's divergent views in running GM-views so opposed that in 1920 Durant resigned his presidency of the company that he had pieced together through audacious buyouts of competing companies. Two years later Sloan became GM's president, and GM emerged as America's preeminent industrial powerhouse, beating out Ford in sales for the first time in 1927. Also integrated into this history of the early U.S. automobile industry are other major players, most notably the irascible Henry Ford, as well as men named Olds and Chevrolet. In 1963, Sloan published My Years with General Motors, now a business classic. Though Pelfrey's work is not of that stature, it is a worthy acquisition for public and academic libraries.-Peter R. Latusek, Stanford Graduate Sch. of Business, CA Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780814408698
  • Publisher: AMACOM Books
  • Publication date: 3/27/2006
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

William Pelfrey (Beverly Hills, MI) spent 15 years at General Motors Corp., most recently as Director of Executive Communications. A former journalist, he reported from Vietnam, Appalachia, and Pakistan for The New York Times, Atlantic Monthly, and The New Republic . His first book, The Big V, won him a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship.

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Table of Contents

"Acknowledgments xi

A Note on Sources and Permissions xiii

Introduction: What They Wrought xv


1920: The Fateful Year 1

America and the General on a Roll Losing a Man Named Chrysler The Eve of Showdown


A Precocious Dropout Forges His First Empire 17

A Hands-On Education Sins of the Fathers Just a Short Ride Across Town Selling Billy Durant, Then Selling the Product A Bitter Lesson in Production Control From Start-Up to Industry Leader


A Quiet Student Becomes a First-Class Supplier 37

Staying on Message A Most Serious Young Man Early Risk and Turnaround Seeing a New Market


A New Machine Creates a New Order 51

An Ancient Idea Slowly Takes Hold Enter Ransom Olds Leland, Master of Precision Henry Ford and His Demons Leland Is in, Cadillac Is Born Alfred Meets Henry . . . and Henry Rises Again


Restless in Flint, Antsy in New York 77

The Good Life in Flint Spared the Strife . . . for the Time Being A Different Routine for Billy's Executive Team A Hardy Man Takes the Plunge Without Billy Billy Takes a Sabbatical David Buick Takes His Shot Enter the Briscoe Boys and Whiting of Flint


The Dropout's Next Big Thing 93

Making It a Go Another Industry Precedent, and an Early Jab from Alfred Billy Finds a New Flame Buick Triumphant No Legacy for David A Shakeout on the Horizon


Birth of a General 109

A Hyatt Customer Prepares to Shift into High Gear Henry Ford's Different Product Strategy Billy Takes Another Call Billy Brings the Big Four Together . . . Henry Ford Kills Morgan's Big Deal Billy Cuts His Own Deal No Headlines for Billy's Newborn


Shooting for the Stars 129

Putting the House of Olds in Order by Cutting the Baby in Quarters Cadillac Makes Itself the World Standard . . . Despite Slumping Sales Wooing the Lelands One More Run at Henry Ford The Great Race . . . and More Great Opportunities A Whirling Dervish Unconstrained


Down but Hardly Out 147

Billy Says Goodbye . . . for Now A Case of Conspiracy or Prudence? Henry Pulls Away . . . and Brings America with Him Heady but Precarious Days for Sloan the Supplier The Bankers Turn to James Storrow, Brahmin Billy Champions a Former Protégé Every Executive Recruiter's Dream Candidate: Walter Chrysler The Bankers' Bottom Line Enter Kettering with His Self-Starter The Bankers' Philosophy vs. Henry Ford's


Beating the Odds with Chevrolet 169

Taking on the Model T . . . Slowly A Different Way to Build Brand Awareness and Community Relations Finally, the Long-Awaited Hit Henry Again Changes the Game The Guardian from Delaware and His Right Hand


A Boardroom Coup Like None Before or Since 187

The Mother of All Proxy Battles Another Clash of Philosophies: Pierre vs. Billy on Corporate Governance Cementing the Base: Step One, Locking in Chrysler Step Two, Luring Alfred into the Fold Alfred Moves Up with Billy


The Founder's Grip Slips Again 205

Henry Ford's Plunge into Pacifism, Politics, and Prejudice Billy Durant vs. the Lelands Good Times on the New Jersey Shore, but Not on Wall Street The Wizard Gambles Again . . . and Dilutes His Power


A Last Good-Bye to the Baby 221

Prelude to the Crisis General Motors' Response vs. Ford Motor's The Founder Has His Own Doubts as His Leadership Team Remains Mute Done in by the Street . . . Again Billy Does Right by His Baby The End of an Era


Alfred Pulls the Ranks Together 237

Pierre Comes Out from Behind the Curtain Kettering's Copper-Cooled Engine From Standoff to Near Meltdown Defying the Consultants to Save Chevrolet Decentralized Operations with Coordinated Control Henry Ford Misses a Sea Change in the Market A Car for Every Purse and Purpose


From Transformation to Domination 253

A New Paradigm for Product Design The Annual Model Change Beyond the United States Nonautomotive Forays and Legacies Financial (and Other) Controls Attracting, Developing, and Holding the Best Talent at All Levels Unrest in the Ranks Politicians and Executives Don't Mix The Finest Hour: General Motors Goes to War for America The Sloan Philosophy and Legacy of Winning

Epilogue: What's Good for General Motors . . . 273

Chronology of Key Events 281

Notes 285

Selected Bibliography 297

Index 303

About the Author 315"

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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 23, 2006

    Lively look at the dueling leaders who launched GM

    In this book you¿ll find eccentrics, misfits and geniuses who made and lost fortunes, founded and lost companies, gained brief fame and were eventually forgotten by just about everyone except automotive industry historians. Although the book purports to focus on Billy Durant, Alfred Sloan and General Motors, its scope is actually much wider, since the evolution of the automobile industry exemplifies the evolution of U.S. industries in general. We recommend this lively, readable saga to history buffs and managers. It is a highly instructive take on the parallels between boom and bust in the car industry of the 1910s and in the high-tech industry of the 1990s.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 4, 2006

    A business book that is a fun read!!

    For one whose only interest in GM arose from today's news of its imminent demise I was very pleasantly surprised to find this engrossing book. I didn't expect it to be a fun read as well as a fascinating story of how and why GM became such a gigantic and influential bastion of power and intrique. I now know where such well-known brand names like Cadillac, Buick, Fisher,Pontiac,Oldsmobile,and some others came from. A truly great read for anyone who wishes to know about our love affair with the automobile and how it made so many people rich!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 25, 2006


    I have read all the books on Durant and Sloan and this one is the best. Lots of interesting inside information and fairness all around. Everyone should read this great true story. Could have done more on Durant Motors as it did last over ten years and started from nothing rising to 5th in sales in the US. A must read. Lance Haynes President of Durant Automobiles Club 4672 Mt. Gaywas Drive San Diego, CA 92117

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 1, 2006

    Stunning and fascinating, impossible to put down

    What a read! The first 'car' book I know of to put a human face on how once-great companies grow and then stumble. Durant and Sloan are characters out of Greek mythology. The drama of the race between GM and Ford in the first half of the twentieth century is even more dramatic than the story of Seabiscuit. How did a high school dropout create the world's largest enterprise? How did he lose it to an MIT graduate focused on org charts? Pelfrey paints the the lessons of the arrogance that often comes with success in a book that is thoroughly researched but also reads like a novel. This book will be cherished by entrepreneurs and managers alike, not to mention all lovers of fast-paced stories with surprise twists. Pelfrey has written both a a primer and a thriller in the story of these two men and the empire they created!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 19, 2006

    What a read!

    Reads like a novel, but full of lessons for all modern-day managers and anyone who cares about how the American auto industry got where it is and where it's going.

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