Our list, recognizing only 20 people, is by definition subjective, especially since we sought to recognize leadership in several different industries. If, as I believe, the automobile is the product of the century, we could easily have filled the list with the names of famous automakers, including Alfred P. Sloan, Charles Kettering and William Durant (all from General Motors), Walter Chrysler, Ferdinand Porsche (Porsche and Volkswagen), Ransom Olds, Clement Studebaker and the Dodge brothers. Henry J. Kaiser not only built cars but also played a key role in shipbuilding, construction, housing and hospitals. In the end, however, we settled on Henry Ford because his individual genius was so responsible for automating the assembly line and building the industry.
Our bias toward innovators and company founders and against managers kept several famous names off the list--not only Sloan, whose organizational and management skills helped consolidate several disparate automakers into General Motors, but also a number of chief executives best known for their ability to manage large enterprises and increase shareholder value. It should be remembered that Ford Motor Co. was foundering when Henry Ford died, and it was left to his grandson Henry Ford II to revive the company after World War II with the help of a group of button-down managers, the "Whiz Kids," including Robert McNamara, Arjay Miller and Charles Thornton. Similarly, Walt Disney wouldn't be so well thought of today had Michael Eisner not saved the company and its founder's name in the 14 years that he has run the company.
My own choice for company of the century is General Electric, which began the century as an industrial company with sales of less than $16 million and, catching almost every wave, evolved into a diversified manufacturing and finance colossus with strong positions in media and information. This year's sales are expected to exceed $100 billion, and with market capitalization of $302 billion, the company is in a close race with Microsoft for the title of Most Valuable. GE chairman Jack Welch isn't the innovator that GE's founder Thomas A. Edison was, but this son of a railroad conductor and lifelong GE employee would certainly get my vote for CEO of the century.
While our issue venerates business leaders and the economic system that allows them to flourish, we should be mindful of the limitations of both. In the years after Vietnam and Watergate, many of us lost faith in our politicians and our military leaders. Instead, we mistakenly looked to the business community to fill the void. Most successful entrepreneurs and executives benefit from their single-minded focus on creating wealth, and when talking about their businesses, they do so with passion. But when discussing society's broader issues, they are too often simplistic and uninformed, and they rarely understand that government's stakeholders have different interests from their own company's shareholders'. Moreover, they tend to be authoritarian, and they aren't often very tolerant of contrary opinions. Lee Iacocca, the charismatic auto executive who did great work at Ford and Chrysler, was one ceo who recognized his limitations. Following publication of his autobiography, Iacocca, which sold 7 million copies, he flirted briefly with making a run for the presidency. In the end, Iacocca decided against it, realizing he would never have the patience required to deal with Congress. Compromising to achieve consensus wasn't his long suit, he told me. It would be good if others seeking the presidency, such as Ross Perot and son-of-a-businessman Steve Forbes, better understood this handicap.
Finally, we must recognize that markets are messy--frequently overshooting or undershooting desired targets--and that it is ordinary working people, not investors, bankers and business leaders, who suffer most when they do. When that happens, as may be the case in the final years of this century, it is worth remembering that there is a role for government in protecting society's weakest members from the markets' excesses while encouraging the animal spirits that free markets unleash. Getting that balance right will be a challenge for business and government in the century ahead.
Norman Pearlstine is the editor-in-chief of Time Inc. and former managing editor of the Wall Street Journal
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Visit the TIME 100 site: 20 top Builders and Titans
December 7, 1998
BUILDERS AND TITANS
Capitalism not only won, it turned into a marvelous machine of prosperity, led by people who could take an idea and turn it into an industry
America's kindly uncle ruthlessly redrew the world
He didn't dream up the future, but he took advantage of it
Sony's chairman made "Made in Japan" a proud label
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TIME.com's special report on 20 top tycoons and innovators