Joe Wilson, Xerox, and the Future of American Business

Joe Wilson and the Creation of Xerox
by Charles D. Ellis
Wiley, September 2006, 404 pp.

Great books have a regrettable tendency to get lost in an age when 3,000 new English tomes are published every day. Likewise, great men and women are lost in the shuffle of an era where we are all famous for a quarter of an hour. How common it must be, then, for books about great men and women to emerge and disappear without ever having seemed to surface.

To be sure, there are a few biographies that are of such import and scholarly merit that they are impossible to ignore. David McCullough’s Truman is one example, as is Anne Somerset’s magisterial biography of Elizabeth I and anything written by Doris Kearns Goodwin or Ron Chernow.

Beneath this elite layer, however, scores of biographies of more specific interest go all but unnoticed, particularly those written by writers who are neither biographers nor historians, and whose subjects are military leaders, government executives, and, indeed, captains of industry. Ironically, it is among these biographies that are more relevant to us personally than the stories of kings and presidents. A superb example of this is Charles Ellis’ enjoyable story of Joe Wilson and his creation of the company we now know as Xerox.

Each of us takes something different from the reading of a biography, but the value of this particular sub-genre is that it offers us sobering yet hopeful glance back at a time when Americans did not depend en masse on real estate and stock markets to fund their futures. It is sobering because it reminds us how far we have strayed from a harder yet more viable path to prosperity. It is hopeful because it hints at a way forward.

It would be easy – and plausible – to dismiss the success of American industry between 1940 and 1970 as the product of fortunate happenstance. After all, America was the “arsenal of democracy” during World War II and the world’s manufacturer and wholesaler for a decade thereafter. At home, returning servicemen unleashed an explosion of consumerism while the government armed itself for the global military standoff of the Cold War. In such an environment, one might ask, how could a company fail?

Yet not every company prospered during these years. Indeed, many failed miserably and some imploded spectacularly. Others, once the postwar boom ended, folded as fast as they grew, either because there was no substance to their success or because stupid decisions and hubris created a culture unfit for all but the best off times.

Those companies that thrived long after the boom and into the new century had, I would argue, built something into their culture, doctrine, and structure that laid the foundations for success in good times and at least perseverance in bad times.

For its part, Xerox has managed to outlast the post-boom bust, the rise of global competition, bouts of miserably bad leadership, face-smackingly dumb acquisitions, and the revolution in electronic documents to remain a force in business and publishing. The “why” comes back to an ethos and a culture inculcated by a largely forgotten CEO. To read Joe Wilson’s story is to see anew the timeless principles that underpin lasting commercial greatness.

Wilson was not a great inventor. He was the scion of a family that had built the Haloid Company, a dependable but uninspiring business in photographic paper, and had managed to do right down the street from the leviathan of the photography business, Eastman Kodak. Wilson understood early in his career at Haloid that the company existed at the mercy of Kodak, and that competition would slowly squeeze the profits out of the business.

Wilson embarked on a quest to find the innovation that would secure the company’s future, finding it finally in a half-baked plain-paper dry photocopying technology developed by patent attorney Chester Carlson and the Battelle Institute. After spending more than a decade and every penny he could earn, save, or borrow developing and commercializing the fledgling technology, Wilson’s company launched their revolutionary product, the Xerox 914.

It was a path fraught with setbacks and haunted by the possibility that Kodak, IBM, or other competitors would beat Haloid to the prize. Along the way what kept the company on the path was Wilson’s determination, his integrity, and his careful management of the company’s day-to-day business and its team of volatile geniuses. Once success came, the Republican Wilson made Xerox the standard-bearer of progressive business, underwriting a television series on the United Nations, hiring African-Americans when few other companies would, and helping the company’s hometown of Rochester, New York lay the foundation for the city’s long-term prosperity.

Today, as we struggle to shake off the misguided belief that financial chicanery can be a viable substitute for vision and innovation, Joe Wilson’s story points the way to a future where America draws its livelihood and competitiveness from its industry rather than its greed, and where finance is again the handmaiden of commerce and commerce serves the people.

The value to us of Wilson’s story is thus not in the singular specifics of xerography and the way it changed the world, but in giving us a window to a different way of thinking about risk, opportunity, the work ethic, and the financial and spiritual rewards of creating something of lasting material value. In an era where most of the graduates of the nation’s leading B-schools head for Wall Street rather than main street, we all need to hear Joe Wilson’s story, and hear the stories of men and women like him.

For they, not the big swinging dicks on the trading floors, are the true heroes of commerce, the true commercial titans. And they light for us a path to a better future, provided we can muster their courage and conviction to seek and follow it.

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One thought on “Joe Wilson, Xerox, and the Future of American Business

  1. Pingback: THE SHADOWS OF POWER « Mayihlome News

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