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A Savage Factory: An Eyewitness Account of the Auto Industry’s Self-Destruction
Bob Dewar grew up in a tarpaper shack in a coal mine town in Western Pennsylvania. He put himself through business school and even got an MBA. After all his education, Dewar’s largest lesson was that he needed to be his own boss. This is what motivated him to leave the suit and tie world of Procter and Gamble and became a foreman at a Ford Motor Company factory. Dewar only wanted enough cash to start his own business, and Ford paid the best wages around. Within his first hour on the job, Dewar discovered he might have been underpaid.
The Sharonville Transmission Plant outside of Cincinnati was at the heart of the Ford Motor Company. When Dewar arrived in the mid-1970s Ford was selling as many cars as it could make, and they all needed transmissions. Dewar thought an essential factory like this would need good management to stay running. He was wrong.
Dewar’s boss new Ed told him he would be supervising torque converter production, and was given a half an hour of training. Ed never gave Dewar any instruction on how the machines worked, but just how the workers may try to sabotage the line.
A Savage Factory tells the story of a company that had not changed in 35 years. The time this book recalls is a period when management and the unionized worker (know as a “hourly”) were enforcing the union labor contracts to its absolute letter. Before the unions, Ford and other car companies kept their labor force at almost inhumane conditions but paid extremely well. After the unions the conditions did not improve much, but a working limit was established at better pay. So after 35 years of being entrenched in union contracts, both management and the hourly didn’t care about the product. Instead the only concern was who was violating his contract.
Dewar paints himself as the man stuck in between these two almost immovable forces. He is a bit of the Sharonville superhero as he is one of the few who stick up for his workers -- an hourly even likes him enough to take him to a secret bar operating within the plant. But Dewar is also real enough to describe his nervous breakdown or times when he ran defective parts when nothing else was available.
The book is not pro-management or pro-union. It is just an account of two powerful forces that never changed because their dysfunction still occasionally worked. The irony wasn’t lost on Dewar that the best time to buy a Ford was when sales were bad, such as during the gas crises. Those were the only times that production was slow enough for anyone to even remotely focus on quality.
There have been many executive profiles and historical books written about the struggles of Detroit’s Big Three during this time period, and A Savage Factory provides a new piece to this puzzle. It vividly illustrates why Detroit was so slow to move against foreign competition, because even the foundations of these companies were stuck in bad decisions. Possibly the best part of this book is that we know we’ve at least gotten better.
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