Alfred Sloan and the Business of Business

On this day, May 23 in the year 1875, one of the world’s greatest business managers and management thinkers was born in Connecticut, USA. His name is Alfred P. Sloan Jr. who was the president, then CEO, and then chairman of General Motors (GM) from 1923 to 1956.

Alfred Sloan
Alfred Sloan (Credit: Agence de presse Meurisse, wiki commons)

Sloan’s father was a wealthy importer and grocer. At 17, Alfred Jr. entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and finished electrical engineering in 3 years. He went on to work in a ball bearing company and later purchased this business and made it profitable. When United Motors bought this company, he was installed as the new president of United Motors. Later, United Motors was merged with General Motors (GM) and he became the executive head of a division within GM. In 1923, he became the new president and CEO of GM and in 1937, he was appointed chairman of the board.

Sloan was instrumental in making GM as the largest automobile company and the biggest industrial concern in the world. He introduced many technological innovations such as four-wheel brakes, ethyl gasoline, crankcase ventilation and knee-action front springs. To capture a bigger market, he made sure there is “a car for every purse and purpose” and inadvertently created the second-hand car market through planned obsolescence.

Alfred was not a hands-on manager which earned him the sobriquet “silent Sloan”. He claimed in an interview that he never gave orders. He divided the whole corporation along functional lines and decentralized decision-making. His famous adage: “The business of business is Business.”

In 1934, Alfred established the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation as his family’s channel of funds for philanthropic activities. Millions of these funds went to education particularly to MIT which named its management school after him. In 1966, he died of heart attack at a hospital that was funded by his foundation. He had no children with his wife Irene Jackson.

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