Bigger than business: my business giants playlist

Can any business leader in history have commanded the following that Steve Jobs attracted in life and now in death?

True, Jobs was more than a businessman.  He was a visionary with a clear idea of  how people-friendly technology could transform the world.  And he had an unswerving commitment to this vision and an energy that allowed him to take his ideas off the drawing board, and bring them into millions of homes, offices and pockets.

Jobs created a brand and a culture that has taken on the dimensions of a cult, within Apple and for its millions of acolytes around the world.

I was a late convert to the cult of Apple.  I bought my first iPod in 2007, just a few days after I’d finished my cancer treatment.  One of the things I missed most during five months in the Royal Free was music.  The iPod – and the brilliantly integrated iTunes shop – was a revelation.  Finally someone had built a music service that could feed my magpie tastes: I was hooked.  Within weeks I’d spent hundreds of pounds on downloads – and since then I’ve acquired two more iPods, a MacBook, two iPads and an iPhone.

But if I’m honest, I’m still not Apple to the core.  As I write this on my MacBook, I hanker after the familiar MS Word keystrokes that made my keyboard life a lot simpler.  Plus I’m disquieted by a business model that traps content – and content providers – in a walled-garden where Apple calls the shots.

Thinking about Jobs – and his impact – this morning I pulled together my own, entirely subjective and arbitrary, Top Ten playlist of business giants.  These are men (and I’m afraid they are all men, sorry sisters…) who were bigger than business, and left economic, technological and social legacies that reshaped the way we live.

So, in no particular order…

1. Henry Ford: pioneer of assembly line production and inventor of a little black number, the Ford Model T, that inspired a religion (if only in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World).  Ford made a point of paying his workers a decent wage: he believed every employee should be wealthy enough to own their own car.  He also said, more or less, that ‘history is bunk’.  Well, he’s made it into my historical Top Ten playlist so he got that wrong.

2. William Lever, 1st Viscount Leverhulme: marketing genius who created one of the world’s first consumer brands, Sunlight Soap.  Besides bringing affordable hygiene to the masses, Lever created the Port Sunlight new town on the banks of the Mersey to house his workers in comfort and dignity.  He also had some agreeably eccentric ideas about sleeping in the open air.

3. Sir Jack Cohen: founder of Tesco, this week confirmed as Europe’s biggest retailer.  Cohen’s pile it high and sell it cheap philosophy transformed the weekly shop, and made life more convenient for millions.  Tall Poppy Syndrome is one of the less attractive features of the British character and it’s become fashionable to take a pop at Tesco.  But I love it – it’s good value, the food’s always fresh and there’s a Tesco Express on my doorstep that’s open until 11pm.

4. Howard Hughes: aviation innovator, movie-maker and inventor of an amazing cantilevered bra (a breakthrough in bra science, indeed) for his muse Jane Russell.  While most of my Top Ten playlist are self-made men from humble origins, Hughes started out with a helping hand from the Hughes Tools millions.  He gets points for his eccentric passion for aviation and his bizarre retreat to that Vegas penthouse.  He also gets points for prefiguring The Simpsons’ Monty Burns, who promises to build an aeroplane, the Spruce Moose, that will carry two hundred passengers from New York’s Idlewild Airport to the Belgian Congo in seventeen minutes!

5. Sir Harry Ferguson: inventor of the modern tractor, and hence one of the fathers of high-intensity industrial-scale modern agriculture.  I’m no cheerleader for the featureless ploughed prairies created by tractors – but I am a big fan of having enough food to eat.  Born in County Down – and his face on the back of every Northern Bank £20 note – Sir Harry largely makes it into my Top Ten playlist because he’s from Northern Ireland.

6. Sir Henry Wellcome: pharmaceutical wunderkind who created the industry we know to day, with sophisticated marketing hand-in-hand with high-tech medical research.  Wellcome was born in a log cabin in Wisconsin and died a knight of the (British) realm.  His legacy is the Wellcome Trust, the UK’s biggest investor in biomedical research.  He also left us his horde of ethnographical artefacts, now housed in London’s Wellcome Collection on the Euston Road.  Where else can you inspect shrunken heads, chamber-of-horrors surgical tools and ancient Japanese sex toys – for free?

7. Andrew Carnegie: another rags-to-riches story, Carnegie rose from a one-roomed cottage in rural Scotland to become one of the world’s most powerful industrialists.  He introduced the Bessemer process that produced the cheap plentiful steel that drove America’s industrial revolution.  Today he’s remembered for saying that the man who dies thus rich dies disgraced and his prodigious philanthropy.  He endowed universities, concert halls, a fund for war heroes and more than 3000 public libraries across the English-speaking world.

8. Thomas Edison: prolific inventor who achieved the rare feat of also finding commercial success.  Compared to some of the Top Ten playlist, Edison feels a little worthy, dull even. He came up with that phrase about genius being one per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration.  But he did invent the phonograph and the incandescent lightbulb.  So, if you think about it, fusty old Edison invented the disco.  No Edison, no Andrea True Connection.

9. James Rouse: developer, urban planner and founder of The Rouse Company which led the regeneration of downtown America with its ‘festival markets’ concept in the 1970s.  At a time when many people were falling out of love with city-living, Rouse showed how leisure and retail could create a new economy in rundown city quarters.  Developments like the Faneuil Hall district in Boston or Baltimore’s Harborplace inspired a wave of urban renewal across the post-industrial world.

10. Arnold Weinstock, Baron Weinstock: an industrial giant who single-mindedly built Britain’s General Electric Company into one of the world’s foremost conglomerates.  GEC did everything (perhaps too much of everything) – from light bulbs and cookers to high-tech defence electronics – and by the 1980s it was Britain’s biggest private sector employer. When Weinstock retired in 1996, GEC had a £11bn turnover and a £2bn cash pile. But the GEC story does not have a happy ending.  Weinstock’s successors jumped on the telecoms bandwagon just as the dot.com boom reached its zenith.   The renamed Marconi sunk under the weight of overpriced telecoms acquisitions.  Arguably, with it went Britain’s best-hope to be a top-tier player in high-tech manufacturing.

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1 Response to Bigger than business: my business giants playlist

  1. Annie says:

    Good blog but Microsoft does do Office for Mac and the keyboard shortcuts are all there…

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