If you run a business and aspire to make it great, you owe it toyourself to read Joe Wilson and the Creation of Xerox byCharles D. Ellis. Despite occasionally pedestrian writing, the bookrewards the reader with dramatic accounts of how one great leadermanaged to influence change rather than just react to it.
Wilson knew little about technology, yet henot the brillianttechies with whom he surrounded himselfcreated the modern copierindustry. Xerox was an old Rochester, N.Y., company that wassmall, obscure and unambitious until Wilson took over from his dadin the late 1940s. In a sense, his takeover kicked off thetechnology revolution that shook American industry out of itssomnolence. Early investors with small stakes in Xerox becamemultimillionaires. Later investors lost billions looking for the"next Xerox." They would have done better searching for the nextJoe Wilson.
His tact and lack of ego held together a necessarily diverse bunchof people. Sol Linowitz, the company lawyer, upstaged him byletting it be said on national television that he, not Wilson, wasthe father of Xerox. Wilson ignored it: Linowitz was important tothe company, and Wilson wanted success, not an ego massage. Hegrasped the importance of image. He pioneered new and novel ways toget public attention for Xerox, including backing public-service TVshows at a time when the company could barely afford the expense inorder to convey an image of quality for a little-known brand.
When a leading consulting firm told Xerox there was no real marketfor its proposed 412 xerography machine, Wilson and his aides tookthe report apart and discovered that the questions asked and themethodology were faulty. He plowed on.
The 412, Xerox's first truly competitive product, would have tosell for $47,000 and was far too big for salespeople to lug around.Who would, or could, write a check of this size for a mere copyingmachine? But hey, someone suggested, who wouldn't pay a nickel toget rid of the messy carbon copy that was the curse of every officeat the time? Wilson didn't hesitate: a nickel a copy it would be.Customers loved the seemingly cheap price, and orders mounted andremounted for the 412. To the customer's surprise and Xerox'sdelight, users were making far more copies of things than they didbefore the 412. The machine was so clean, fast and precise, it wasan easy way to expand internal communication in the days beforee-mail. In a year, some customers were spending more for copiesthan the machine would have cost. Xerox became a cash jackpotmachine.
Ellis's generally upbeat book has a sad ending. On his retirementin the mid-1960s, an ailing and tired Wilson made two horriblemistakes: He picked an incompetent successor and then failed tobequeath a strong board that could have reined in his successor'sblunders. His successor threw away the chance to own the comingpersonal computer revolution and made disastrous billion-dollarinvestments in old industries. He lacked his predecessor's knackfor embracing change. By then, Wilson was too ill to retake thereins. Xerox shriveled, and its bonds sank to junk status. Rescuedby the present CEO, Ann Mulcahy, Xerox is doing well again, but itis no longer the shining symbol Wilson created.
The author, Charley Ellis, is retired head of the consulting firmGreenwich Associates and serves as a Yale trustee and a director ofthe Vanguard funds. He knows a lot about business leadership,having consulted for and worked with many of the bestpractitioners. Among all of the business leaders he's known, andhe's known hundreds, he puts Joe Wilsonwhom he never metoverthem all. The lessons here are clear and shiningboth the good andthe bad. (Forbes.com, October 25, 2006)
Transforming family-owned Haloid Corp., which struggled in theshadow of hometown behemoth Eastman Kodak, into the globallyrecognized Xerox is an amazing accomplishment. But as Ellis'sbiography of Joe Wilson attests, Wilson's achievements ranged morewidely and went much deeper than many gave him credit for. Ellis,author of 11 books and former financial industry consultant offersa heartfelt, if not artful, telling of the CEO's life story. Hecontends that Wilson embodied all of the qualities that leadershipmanagement books celebrate: integrity, foresight and the ability toinspire people to perform. He credits these attributes to helpingWilson so spectacularly realize his vision for his company; itsemployees; his alma mater, the University of Rochester; and thecity and people of Rochester, N.Y. Ellis's telling starts off slowand is initially quite repetitive. But once Xerox is finally born,after years of setbacks, the story picks up. The real purpose forthe detailed buildup appears toward the end, when credit for thelast 20-odd years of corporate strife and ultimate success is givento the wrong person, Wilson's best friend and the company'scorporate counsel. At that point, it becomes clear why Ellis wascompelled to write this book so long after the company's rise andits true founder's demise.(Sept.) (Publishers Weekly, July17, 2006)