In Their Time: The Greatest Business Leaders of the Twentieth Century

intheirtime.jpg In Their Time, written by Harvard Business School professor Anthony Mayo and Nitin Nohria, is a book about American business leaders of the last century. Professors Mayo and Nohria recognize three different types of leaders: entrepreneurs (create new businesses), managers (expert at taking advantage of every opportunity), and leaders (reinvent industries and see new opportunities in them). They discuss how these three types of business leaders exceled in their ability to seize opportunities that existed in their time. The book recognizes not only well known leaders of our time like Sam Walton and Jack Welch, but many lesser known leaders who were important in their day and age.

What I like about the book is its acknowledgement of “contextual intelligence”, the ability to make sense of the unique context in which we live and to create or discover new business opportunities based on that understanding. Professors Mayo and Nohria assert that this contextual intelligence distinguishes great business leaders from also-rans. The book is organized by decades beginning in the 1900 through the end of the century, presenting a fascinating history of the last 100 years from a business perspective.    

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21 Comments

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21 responses to “In Their Time: The Greatest Business Leaders of the Twentieth Century

  1. Nick Hammer

    I haven’t had a chance to read much of this book, but I really like how it is put together. It involves what was happening during the time of these business leaders. Hopefully, it will help show how these leaders made the most of their opportunities. Some of these opportunities could then be looked at to see if any could be applied in today’s times.

  2. Matt Chrisman

    I thought Clarence Saunders, who founded Piggly Wiggly, was interesting. Saunders seems to have used some of the concepts of Ford, in that he used specialization and division of labor for his store. His stores revolutionized the grocery business and all groceries today are modeled after his design. His idea of letting customers wind through isles to get their own groceries and disconnecting employees from that process was a big change at the time. His stores were based on streamlined processes and efficiency.

  3. Ryan Howard

    I chose this book over “Giants of Enterprise” because I am a believer that without the right timing, any idea, business venture, or invention has a good chance of not developing into a true success. For example, creating a large “gas guzzler” vehicle today may not be as wize of a business decision as it would have been in the 50’s or 60’s. “In Their Time” takes you back the era when these entrepreneurs or business leaders lived and explains the opportunities that existed at that time to help create their success.
    I enjoy learning history and economical changes through the years which is why I chose this book.

  4. Nick German

    I’m only halfway through chapter 1 at this point, but “Giants of Enterprise” provides a very thorough examination of the changing environment during the 20th Century. It looks at the opportunities that allowed certain entrepreneurs to be very successful during particular time periods. One example that was given in chapter 1 was the success of the railroad industry. According to the authors, the development of the steam engine along with the design and use of dynamite and other explosives contributed to the success of the industry at that time. So far I’ve enjoyed reading this book and I look forward to discovering how entrepreneurs used various opportunities to their advantage throughout the 20th century.

  5. Joe V.

    “In Their Time” seems to set up nicely. The two authors put together a book that is written in such a way that it is a smooth read. I think I will be able to learn from this book and use a new way of thinking to find my own business opportunities.

  6. Meghan B.

    I think that this book is very interesting. I have only read a couple of chapters but it seems easy to read and very interesting. It gives you alot of facts that really portrays how things were during the time of these entrepreneurs.

  7. Joe V.

    While reading In Their Time, I was interested in the development of the railways across America. During the Industrial Revolution and in the early 1900s technology was advancing at a tremendous rate. The train tracks were expanding across the United States, connecting businesses and people alike. I find it fascinating that the companies at the time were able to keep up. Big business had become the norm, and these “giants” in various industries were using the railways as their main expansionary tool. Connecting the east coast the west was always the goal, and their ability to adapt and advance with the times was paramount to the success of these new business. I never realized that this time in history would go on to influence the rest of business and how it was formed and managed. These principles of management and this era of tought left an everlasting footprint in the minds of entrepreneurs.

  8. Matt Chrisman

    I just finished reading a section in “In Their Time” about Louis Neumiller, who was the CEO of Caterpillar Tractor Company from 1941 to 1954. Neumiller took advantage of a great opportunity after World War II. Basically, he convinced the U.S. government that it was in their best interest to allow Caterpillar to continue manufacturing earth moving equipment, namely bulldozers, during the war. Bulldozers did help win the war, but after the war was over, the U.S. government left the equipment in Europe and Asia. Caterpillar’s signature bright yellow paint made them easily recognizable and they had established a reputation for quality. Neumiller took advantage of the fact that this equipment had been demonstrated in foreign countries and immediately began implementation of follow up maintenance and new sales to foreign countries. In essence, Caterpiller became an international company almost overnight. This demonstrates that hard work and preparation are important, but you also have to recognize when opportunity knocks. Then you have to be ready to act.

  9. Mike Stoltenberg

    I have just acquired the book “In Their Time” a couple days ago. So far the book is basically creating the stage to which the entrepreneurs strive in. The author talks about what political forces started out the twentieth century and how the laws introduced limited business power, provided employees with more equal rights, provided employees with better working conditions, and filed numerous claims to stomp monopolies. The story of Frank Phillip (an entrepreneur from from the wonderful midwest) was interesting to see how he was involved in a number of different fields accross a wide spectrum. I am interested to see what other unknown entrepreneurs are in this book.

  10. Matt D

    I am reading “Giants of Enterprise” and I found what Carnegie did to be really interesting. Great Britain was known for its steel, and Carnegie took the knowledge he gained from his native land and started his own business in the states. He took advantage of a place that hadn’t had such a business yet and I think that the location and timing of it helped him achieve great success. As we all know, timing and location, as some have mentioned, is very important when starting up. I am looking forward to how the other entrepreneurs took advantage of their situations and how they adjusted to achieve great success.

  11. Joe V.

    While reading about Juan Trippe in “In Their Time,” I was fascinated by how young he was when he started becoming a player in the airline industry. By 26 years old, he was already trying to obtain goverment contracts for airmail routes. His age and lack of funding forced him to play by his own rules, using his own tactics. His ways of running his multiple airlines were not cohesive with the beliefs he was surrounded by. Although he was not looked at as a typical businessman within the United States, Trippe was a master in foreign policy, eventually connecting the western United States with the Phillipines. The desire Trippe posessed to become successful led him to many decisions, including allowing his airline be consolidated into Pan American. This move determined the next twenty years of his life and eventually led to creating and running the biggest airline of the time. He was never afraid of walking into unknown, questionable endeavors, and this is what always kept him ahead of the times. He always brought something to the table wherever he went.

  12. Nick German

    Chapter 2 discusses the impact that the Great War had and also the opportunities it provided for entrepreneurs between 1910 and 1919.

    Prior to 1917, the U.S. was in a state of both isolationism and neutrality. After countless attacks on U.S. commercial vessels by Germany, and the failure to broker peace, the U.S. was finally forced to enter WWI in 1917. A major impact of this was that American companies began to look for opportunities to expand into Europe. This signaled the beginning of a global presence for many U.S. companies.

    The oil industry grew in large part because of the U.S. war effort in Europe and the increasing popularity of the automobile. Frank Phillips was an entrepreneur who would capitalize on this opportunity. In 1917, he started the Phillips Petroleum Company based in Oklahoma which is now operating under the name of ConocoPhillips.

    Phillips actually began his career as a successful barber. He then left this trade due to an agreement with John Gibson. Gibson was a successful banker, and Phillips was interested in marrying his daughter. Before granting his approval, Gibson asked Phillips to pursue a more “respectable” career. Phillips obliged and went into the banking industry.

    Due in large part to his love of adventure, Phillips took many risks and finally hit a big well in Oklahoma. He also saw opportunities for growth through promoting natural gas and aviation fuel.

    One thing I learned from reading about Frank Phillips was the importance of adapting to new opportunities. Phillips was very successful as a barber and could have remained in that profession for the rest of his career. Instead he took a risk by quitting his profession (in part because of a woman) and moving into the banking industry. He found great success there and eventually moved into the oil industry. Phillips was an entrepreneur who wasn’t afraid to take risks. As a result he was able to capitalize on developing opportunities and found successful businesses that, in some form, are still in operation today.

  13. Nick Hammer

    I really enjoyed reading about Malcom P. McLean, the founder of SeaLand Service. It is very interesting how he was able to build a very successful transporatation business through trucking, then change that whole transportation industry with ships.

    He started out with one truck hauling things like dirt, produce, and other things. He then expanded, buying more trucks and hiring drivers. He no longer had to drive a truck, but later because of the economy he had to cut back on workers and again start driving trucks. On one of his runs, he ended up waiting for basically the whole day at a dock to unload his truck. He noticed that things were only being loaded onto the ship one crate at a time. McLean thought it would be better to have a trailer that could be loaded ontoa ship all at once.

    Nineteen years later, McLean had the largest trucking fleet in the South and fifth in the country, but weight restrictions were becoming harder to deal with. McLean thought it would be easier to use a ship, then you wouldn’t be dealing with different weight restrictions in different states. He bought a ship company and redesigned truck trailers that could be lifted onto the ship. It wasn’t necessarily a new concept, train boxcars were being loaded onto ships, but this changed the shipping industry. At the time the shipping industry was a dying industry, but McLean’s idea revitalized the industry.

    I liked how the book put him in as a leader, but also said he was an entrepreneur. I agree with this assessment. He lead his trucking fleet to be very successful, but then through entreprenurial innovation changed the whole transporatation industry with ships.

  14. james young

    i thought that this book has a lot of insight, into the decision process and why these leaders took the path that they choose. i found it interesting to find out that there really has never been a book in the past such as this one. like the book says if you are a play writer you would study Shakespear and if you are an artist you would study leonardo divinci. there are some good points of the past that give good definition to those times at the begining of the book. i never knew that so many of the regulations put out by the government and agencies were created in the begining part of the 1900’s. this would explain some of the moves thatbusiness owners had to take in order to adaprt their business to survive. some of these policies were in dier need though. especially the food and drug administration was really needed. if i knew that the rats that were in the meat i was eating, i don’t think i would be to happy. i probably would be a veggietarian. this book also goes over numerous people including the Juan Trippe. he was a remarkable man. this man never wavered in the face of the unknown and made it big. he was increadibly intelligent for many reasons. he took mail into a whole new ball game by transporting mail by air. this got things where they needed to be faster and more effiecently. that wasn’t his only thing that he was good at though according to the book he was also good at foreign policy.

  15. Meghan Behrens

    I have only read about a fourth of the book. I think it is really good so far. One of the stories in it that interested me was on the Phillips brothers. I thought it was amazing that they couldn’t get enough financing so they opened their own banking operation. It not only helped them with the oil industry but ended up being very successful in itself.

  16. Matt Chrisman

    In the “Feeding the Machine of Consumption 1950-1959” section I was particularly interested in Howard Morgens. Howard Morgens was the CEO of Proctor and Gamble from the late 1950’s through the 1960’s, but I believe the more interesting story was when he began at Proctor and Gamble as a salesman. He started selling Ivory soap and Crisco out of the trunk of his Ford Model A. He kept detailed records and logs of what could be improved in the selling process. He summarized his findings and sent them to corporate headquarters. Due to his work, he was assigned to work in the national advertising department. One of the most interesting stories about his tenure in the advertising department was a radio program that he started.

    He started a radio program that was basically an advertisement. The first program was a show featuring “Ma Perkins” who was a widow that would share life stories as she was working around the house, namely doing laundry with a Proctor and Gamble soap called Oxydil. This show later spun off Television programs and in the early 1950’s Proctor and Gamble started airing a show called “Guiding Light” which became the predecessor to the modern soap opera.

    I thought this story was interesting because it shows how one idea spun off a whole industry by accident. It demonstrates how some opportunities are created and if you are vigilant, you can take advantage of the opportunities as they arise. Obviously Proctor and Gamble did not go into making soap operas, but it still demonstrates the point that sometimes opportunity just happens through the normal course of business.

  17. Joe V.

    While reading the fifth chapter, 1940-1949, I was intrigued by the extent the government went to to support the world war I efforts. I knew before that the wars were central to the American economy, but I did not realize that it basically was the economy. The government offered rewards for supporting the war effort and this cut out many smaller businesses from the benefits. By the time WWII came along, the U.S. economy was tremendously stronger than it was before and things didn’t change. The same trends took hold and our country entered a state of almost idealistic ideas, full employment, and a new image that could not be ignored as it was after WWI.

  18. Nick Hammer

    I really liked the irony of Dee Ward Hock’s story. Being in severe debt, he shredded all his credit cards and swore not to own another ever again. Later he forms the largest credit card company in the world, Visa.

    Hock had been working at the National Bank of Commerce, when he was approached to launch the credit card program. Hock didn’t want to have anything to do with it, but had to do it anyway. This got him back in credit cards, but this time on the other side.

  19. Nick German

    In chapter 9, the Max O. De Pree’s story was mentioned. He became of Herman Miller, Inc. in 1980. This company had been run by the De Pree family for the last 57 years and had an employee centric culture.

    I really liked De Pree’s decision to continue this culture. Under his leadership, Herman Miller, Inc. made roving leadership a priority. Roving leadership empowered all employees at all levels to institute change and suggest improvements in productivity and/or design. De Pree also implemented a silver parachute. Under the provisions of this parachute, all 3,500 employees were entitled to a generous severance payment if Herman Miller was ever acquired.

    I think his fairness toward company employees is an important distinction. In essence, all employees were recognized as being important. This employee centric culture gave all company workers a sense of pride and loyalty to Herman Miller, Inc. and I think was a big part of the business’ success.

  20. Matt Chrisman

    The story of Malcom P. McLean, CEO of SeaLand Service Incorporated, and how his idea of inter modal transportation revolutionized the shipping industry was fascinating. Originally, he started out with a trucking business, which gave him insights into how freight can be loaded to maximize space in a semi trailer.

    He decided to get into shipping and he spent time watching how workers would unload ships and then load trucks. He found this process to be inefficient. It wasted time and money. He designed and fabricated storage containers that could be stacked aboard ships and then using a crane, placed on a semi trailer.

    This process greatly enhanced the efficiency of unloading ships. His idea became mainstream very quickly and increased the profitability of sea based shipping companies.

  21. Nick German

    Even though In Their Time was much less entrepreneurially focused than I expected, I enjoyed reading this book. Instead of devoting the book solely to the stories of individuals, Mayo and Nohria spent the majority of their time creating context for business success. They did this by explaining the demographics, technology, regulations, politics, labor conditions and social norms of each decade.

    While there were fewer examples of entrepreneurial success than I expected, the technique the authors chose became one of the book’s greatest strengths. By painting a detailed picture of each decade, the authors provided insight into why certain business leaders found success when they did. Through this approach, I was able to learn that simply being in the right place at the right time does not guarantee success. Business leaders also need to understand their current situation and actively look for opportunities to exploit them.

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