The Book Corner - Review

Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City by Greg Grandin

Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City

By Greg Grandin
Picador, 2009

[powerpress: http://gsbm-med.pepperdine.edu/gbr/audio/summer2011/BookReview_Mallette.mp3]

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5 stars: Stop what you're doing and read this book!

Fordlandia has something for everyone: Management blunders, foreign intrigue, American capitalism, Midwestern Puritanism, an attempt to move car manufacturing to northwestern Alabama, tropical boomtowns on the Amazon river, botany of the rainforest, but more importantly, Fordlandia by Greg Grandin is a true story of intercultural clash.

Ford is remembered by professors of operations management as the man who started the assembly line and paid workers five dollars per day in 1914, allowing the growth of middle class and giving them the ability to buy the product they manufactured. The dark side is that Ford resorted to different tactics in the 1920s: “speedup, which pushed the idea of synchronized assembly lines to the limits of human endurance [and] fear was … needed to forestall the discontent that such a system inevitably generated.”(p. 69)

One of Ford’s attempts at vertical integration—growing rubber in the Amazon—is the basis for this book and it is filled with interesting stories. One of them was the difference between Detroit’s industrial time and the Amazon’s agricultural time: employees in the Amazon had been plantation workers who were paced by the sun. The sun defined the start and stop times and midday marked the time to find shade and sleep. Another aspect of agricultural time is that most of the work was “performed during the relatively dry months of June to November.”(p.222) The workers were not acclimated to factory whistles and working year-round.

The town endured prosperous periods when shops were built where workers could spend their paychecks and difficult periods like the riots of 1930, started by a cafeteria ‘process improvement/cost-cutting’ decision, where the workers demolished many of the facilities while chanting “Brazil for Brazilians, Kill the Americans.”(p. 231) There were also natural predators that demolished capital improvements. The rubber trees were plagued with leaf fungi, lace bugs, ants, leafhoppers, moths, roaches, and especially caterpillars. You can read about the insecticide research and the double-graft (partial) solution in chapter 21.

The 23 chapters cover many aspects of Ford’s empire in the early 20th century. This is a fascinating book covering a powerful businessman and a grand experiment in vertical integration. I would recommend this book for anyone who is interested in history and intercultural aspects of global business.

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