Get the Goods on Five Great American Businesspeople

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By MJ Plaster

Imagine a world without lightbulbs, cars, 747s, the Dallas Mavericks or Oprah’s media conglomerate. Instead of another tired rendition of “Bill Gates, the Great” or “Steve Jobs, the Luminary,” we’ll get the goods on five great American businesspeople who have left a lasting imprint on American culture and society.

A 19th-Century, Green Visionary
“Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.”
~Thomas Edison



Born in 1847, Thomas Edison received a book of science experiments from his mother when he was 10 years old. Little did she know she would unleash one of the world’s most prolific inventors with more than 1,000 patents. Immediately after reading the book, Edison built his first science lab in the family’s basement. With only three months of formal schooling, Edison learned the skill of self-education from his mother’s homeschooling.

Edison began his career at 12, selling newspapers at a railroad station. Once he gained access to the railroad’s Teletype, he used the news bulletins to publish his own newspaper to sell to passengers. Later he went to work for The Associated Press and then Western Union.

The electric generator Edison invented was an early version of fuel cell technology. Edison invented the alkaline battery and improved several technologies including cement and Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone. His version of the telegraph machine transmitted two signals in each direction simultaneously.

More inventions followed in his New Jersey, lab, including the phonograph that cemented his reputation as an inventor. After he received the patent for his lightbulb, he began his transition to industrialist. He founded Edison Illuminating Company, General Electric’s predecessor, to distribute the electricity needed to power his lightbulb. Still, Edison continued to invent, and he received his final patent in his 80s.

Through his inventions, Edison laid the foundation for what will become our future. Consider this quote: “I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.” Edison may have had little formal education, but he graduated with honors from the Leonardo Da Vinci School of Vision.

The Man Who Thought He Could
Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t—you’re right.
~Henry Ford


Born in 1863 during the Civil War, Henry Ford became one of the most influential men of the 20th century. He’s best known for his Model T, the first affordable car and one of the best-selling cars ever. Ford took ideas and molded them into innovations that transformed the carriage trade into the modern auto industry.

One day, when walking around the family farm in Dearborn, Michigan, Ford saw a farm machine that seemed to propel itself. The driver had rigged a chain to the wheels to propel the machine himself. Could this sight have sparked Ford’s imagination and led to the manufacture of the Model T?

At 16, Ford left home to become an apprentice to a machinist. His interest in all things mechanical led to his job as an engineer at Edison Illuminating Company. There he built the prototype of his “horseless carriage.” Thomas Edison encouraged him to build another, better model.

After a couple of automotive business failures, Ford began to build racecars, which attracted backers for what would become Ford Motor Company. He assembled a team that shared his vision. Together, they introduced the Model T in 1908. Ford said, “Vision without execution is just hallucination.” The team executed the vision perfectly.

Demand for the Model T outstripped production, so Ford needed a larger plant and a way to speed up production. After studying the production of watches, guns, bicycles and meatpacking, he melded those techniques into the moving assembly line.

Employees were leaving four times faster than Ford could hire them. With the swipe of a pen, he doubled salaries to $5 per day, enticing worker to stay and making it possible for them to buy Ford automobiles.

Ford bought out the backers and installed his son Edsel as president, but Henry continued to run the company. Drunk on success, he began to run the company into the ground. While Chevrolet and others were innovating, Ford clung to the Model T. Finally, Ford produced the Model A, but it generated little interest, and by the mid-1930s, Ford was in third place behind Chevrolet and Chrysler.

After a brutal fight with the United Auto Workers (UAW), Ford gave in; his workers unionized—another blow to the company. World War II rescued the beleaguered company with military contracts for tanks, jeeps, airplanes and engines.

After the death of Henry and Edsel Ford, the company produced the Edsel, one of the automotive industry’s greatest failures, and the Mustang, one of its greatest successes.

The “Gangster’s” Billion Dollar Gamble with OPM
This is the most important aviation development since Lindbergh’s flight. In one fell swoop, we have shrunken the earth.
~Juan Trippe on the subject of jet aircraft

juan trippe

What’s the first rule of making money? Use other people’s money (OPM), of course. Born in 1899, Juan Trippe fine-tuned the concept. Trippe was an aviation fan from the time he was a young boy who watched Wilbur Wright’s 1909 flight around the Empire State Building.

After graduation from Yale, Trippe scrounged enough money from his wealthy connections to buy scrapped Navy seaplanes. He used the planes for anything that would bring in money—air taxi rides, fun flights and stunt airplanes for motion pictures.

Pan Am made its money in what Dwight D. Eisenhower coined “the military-industrial complex.” In 1926, Pan Am won a contract to carry U.S. mail. Four years later, Trippe was the proud owner of America’s largest airline. Franklin Roosevelt called him a gangster for padding his invoices, but he was his gangster. Roosevelt planned to use Pan Am for national security purposes, so he gave Trippe the Pacific mail contract.

During World War II, Pan Am trained U.S. Navy pilots and navigators, flew over 90 million miles on behalf of the military, and served as an adviser to the military. Trippe was awarded the Legion of Merit for his contributions to the war effort. From its first flight on October 28, 1927, until its demise, Pan Am operated as a goodwill ambassador for the United States and much more.

In 1956, Trippe ushered in the jet age. Pan Am was first to fly the 707, which reduced travel time from New York to Paris by 50 percent. But it was Trippe’s single-minded determination to acquire a huge aircraft (the 747) that defined his career and changed the face of air travel. The 747 wasn’t Boeing’s idea; it was solely Trippe’s vision, against everyone’s better judgment. “Everyone” knew the Boeing supersonic transport (SST) on the drawing board would soon eclipse the 747.

Trippe took OPM to unimaginable heights to put the 747 into service. He persuaded his friend Bill Allen, chairman of Boeing, to take a billion-dollar gamble and to bet Boeing’s existence on the 747—all on a handshake deal—“If you buy it, I’ll build it,” and the reply, “If you build it, I’ll buy it.” The deal was struck in 1965, and Boeing promised to deliver the aircraft by the end of 1969, which created an impossible production schedule.

The aircraft almost didn’t make it off the ground, but at every potential failure point, Trippe strong-armed Allen into correcting the course. Boeing wore a path to the bank every time funds ran low. It built a new assembly plant to accommodate the completed aircraft frame. Employees worked in the plant even before the roof was constructed. The original engines nearly doomed the project, vibrating and stalling, and test flights didn’t go as planned.

One by one, problems were fixed and the massive 747 rolled out on time, shrinking the globe and giving the world cheap international air travel. That is the legacy of Juan Trippe, immortalized by the Tony Jannus Award for his extraordinary achievements in the world of commercial aviation.

The Queen of All Media
“You are responsible for your life. If you’re sitting around waiting on somebody to save you, to fix you, to even help you, you are wasting your time. Only you have the power to move your life forward.”
~Oprah Winfrey



Born in 1954 to an unwed mother, Oprah Winfrey grew up in poverty and endured a childhood marred by trauma. Today, she faces challenges head on and calls ’em as she sees ’em. When Winfrey makes a mistake, she takes responsibility for it, often in a public forum. She’s been dubbed “The Queen of All Media,” she’s the first African-American billionaire, and she’s a role model for young women across the globe.

From the age of nine, Winfrey was sexually abused. She ran away from home at 13, prematurely gave birth to a son who died in infancy at 14, and finally landed on her father’s doorstep in Nashville. Her father was strict and valued education. He encouraged his daughter, and Winfrey credits him with saving her life.

While working part time at a radio station, Winfrey became a high school honor student. She earned a full university scholarship to Tennessee State University where she earned a B.A. in speech and performing arts. During college, she landed a news anchor job at WTVF-TV in Nashville—the youngest ever and first African-American news anchor at the station.

After working in TV in Baltimore, Winfrey moved to Chicago, where her career reached the stratosphere. She hosted a morning talk show against Phil Donahue, and she led the show from last place to first place for its time slot in the market. By the mid-1980s, The Oprah Winfrey Show was syndicated and broadcast nationally. The show displaced Donohue nationally to become the top talk show in the country.

During the show’s 25-year run, Winfrey hosted every imaginable celebrity, mover and shaker as well as ordinary people with a story to tell. She bore her soul, and invited the viewer into her world. She empathized with her guests, and through exposure on her show, launched several television careers including those of Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz.

Winfrey launched her popular book club on the show, which created instant best-sellers. In one case, James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, wove an entire nonfiction work out of whole cloth. She apologized to her audience and then “invited” him to return to the show, where she handed him a “public whupping.”

Winfrey made the transition from the small screen to the large screen (while hosting the talk show) as a serial executive producer and a featured actor in The Color Purple. Winfrey’s awards are too numerous to list, but they include 17 Daytime Emmy awards and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Today, she publishes O, The Oprah Magazine, and her Harpo Productions owns OWN (Oprah Winfrey Network) in conjunction with Discovery Communications.

She’s active in Oprah’s Angel Network, a public charity she founded in 1998. Its mission is to “encourage people around the world to make a difference in the lives of others,” something Winfrey excels at doing.

Dancing to the Beat of His Own Drum
“It’s not in the dreaming, it’s in the doing.”
~Mark Cuban                                                                              Source


Born in 1958, Mark Cuban is best known as owner of the Dallas Mavericks and co-star of the TV reality show Shark Tank. How apropos that a maverick on the scale of Cuban would buy the Dallas Mavericks from another maverick—Ross Perot! “Renegade” courses through Cuban’s veins the way Gatorade courses through his players veins.

Cuban’s father told him, “Today’s the youngest you’re ever going to be. You’ve got to live like it. You’ve got to live young every day.” Cuban started young. At 12, he began selling his way through junior high (as it was called back then) and high school and making deals. In college, he earned   money giving dance lessons and hosting disco parties.

After college, Cuban took a job at Mellon Bank just as they were computerizing, and he quickly absorbed computer and networking knowledge. His entrepreneurial spirit, however, didn’t sit well with staid bank executives.

At the suggestion of college friends, Cuban rolled into Dallas in his 1977 Fiat X19 on fumes, a wish and a prayer. While tending bar, Cuban taught himself programming on a $99 Texas Instruments computer. He was fired from his next job in software sales—again due to his drive and ambition.

“Conformity” never existed in the Cuban vocabulary, but the latest firing ignited a raging fire within, and soon he founded MicroSolutions, a consulting company sold for $6 million a few years later.

The proceeds from the sale funded Cuban’s next venture, which combined his enthusiasm for Indiana Hoosier basketball with his computer expertise. Together with fellow Hoosier alum, he founded a dot-com that introduced streaming to the Internet. A few years later, Cuban leapt from the millions to the billions when they sold to Yahoo for $6 billion.

With a portion of his sale proceeds, Cuban purchased the Dallas Mavericks for $285 million. People thought he was crazy to purchase a team that hadn’t seen a playoff in recent memory, a team plagued by malaise, bad management and marginal players. He was crazy like a fox!

Cuban worked magic with his zeal, molding the brand into his maverick image. He overhauled the culture of the franchise, indulged players, built a new stadium, started the first NBA team blog, hobnobbed with fans, launched tirades against anyone who stood between him and his goal, and led the team to an NBA championship against the Miami Heat in 2011. Along the way, Cuban amassed millions in fines.

In 2007, Cuban danced his way onto the stage of Dancing With the Stars. He’s joined the cast of 1 percenters on Shark Tank, a wildly popular reality show where contestants try to make a deal with one of the panel members for venture capital. Shark Tank opens the door to the mysterious and misunderstood world of venture capital to the budding, renegade entrepreneur. Many who have struck a deal have used the money and their angel’s expertise to ride the wave of success.

Maverick Mark Cuban is much more than a legend in his own mind; he is a legend for our times. Neither success nor victory deters him from his goals, filters his words or dims his ambition. In a time of universal deceit, Cuban is a truth teller who walks his bombastic talk. He is a 21st-century revolutionary. He’s not getting any younger, but he’s “doing his dream.”