My employment at a corporate giant gave me the tools to bring entrepreneurship education to at-risk youth around the world by focusing on the value of teamwork and courtesy. My transition from fast-track entrepreneur and later teaching was not easy, but it was worth it.
In 1982, I was a failing remedial math teacher. Fifty-nine unruly students confronted me at the Boys and Girls High School in Bedford-Stuyvesant, at the time one of New York City’s high-crime areas. For that large number, there were only 42 chairs and 39 textbooks. Some stood at the back of the room.
Over weeks, the class went from unruly to worse.
Sometimes, they locked me out of the classroom. One student set fire to a coat in the class. Within a few months, most of my students stopped showing up.
My frustration and sense of failure grew along with that deep feeling of losing control. This was not the Ford Motor Company where I worked as a successful financial analyst. This was not Small Business America where I had excelled as an entrepreneur.
One day in class, on impulse, an inspirational thought hit me. ‘Why not connect their math class using real world business examples?’ I held up my watch as a sales item for a mock auction which included a “Trading Game” to demonstrate the basic concept of buying and selling.
To my amazement, they began to learn the basics of math.
My knowledge of business principles helped modify these kid’s behavior and entrepreneurship education changed the structure of their psyche. It also gave them the tools to get out of poverty and stay in school.
This led to me creating a business literacy curriculum at this inner-city school which later became the genesis of (NFTE) the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, now a world-wide movement which I founded in 1987.
I grew up and worked in the “AUTO BELT” in Michigan. At six, I wanted to be President of the Ford Motor Company. One day, my father a financial analyst in the Ypsilanti plant turned to me sadly and said. “Son, I am never going to move up here — it is just too competitive and the Ivy Leaguers work as a club.”
We soon re-located to Flint where he became a professor at General Motors Institute (GMI) now known as Kettering University. By the time I was ten, I managed to identify all the makes of cars on Pontiac Trail, my home street. Counting the number of Fords, Chryslers and GM cars, I posted on my wall weekly tally sheets. Without realizing it, this was the beginning of my business career.
As a teenager, surrounded by GM folks, all the talk was about Buick, Chevrolet, Oldsmobiles and the Cadillac line ups. I was a loyal Ford Motor fan and followed every move of lee Iacocca’s career. I chose the University of Michigan to be close to its World Headquarters based in Dearborn.
A picture of the legendry president, Lee Iacocca, hung on my wall. In addition, the names of the top executives at Ford, Chrysler and GM -going back decades- were posted on an organizational chart near his photo.
At the time, the company was run by Ford Finance Staff. A group of “Whiz Kids”, former World War 11 Air force officers, joined World Headquarters in 1946. With the help of Henry Ford, II, they transformed the company into a modern-day wonder of management.
They occupied the 10th and 11th floors of World Headquarters. The story of the founder—Henry Ford was etched on the back of my brain. Robert McNamara, a Finance Staff member and former company president, became Secretary of Defense under Kennedy.
Other than Harvard’s Business School, this global giant had produced more CEOs of Fortune 500 firms than any other organization. It was essentially a training ground for America’s top management including J.D. Power, Alan Gilmour and many others. I wanted to be part of this world.
It was clear to me that positions in finance and marketing were key stepping stones to the president’s office. I was determined to create new products and help keep it, the greatest company on earth.
Armed with an MBA, majoring in finance and business economics, the auto giant’s Casting Division, with $2 billion in sales, hired me as the assistant to the controller in 1976.
This division was the heart of the company’s manufacturing. It made many of the component pieces that went into our cars. Its controller, Case Koreman was a Wharton graduate, emigrating from the Netherlands after fighting the Nazis in World War II. Tall and charismatic he was typical of the Ivy leaguers that ran Ford.
All summer long, I helped Case and our team forecast what was going to happen with the large scorching ovens. By summer’s end, my boss gave me an excellent evaluation for my work.
I was viewed as a non-traditional candidate for not having gone to an Ivy League school or performing academically in the top percentile. During my second year of graduate school, I broke every company protocol to secure a position in International Finance at Ford’s Headquarters.
My waking moments were consumed with impressing management with my proven performance in research. I called and wrote letters to senior management about my research at the Castings Division. Whenever possible, I attended major auto industry events.
My numerous letters to Case and other senior executives pointed out in no uncertain terms that I would be their ‘find of the century’ for Finance Staff.
On March 7th 1977, my candidacy for the International Finance Department at World Head Quarters was approved. I ran down the streets of Flint in pure joy. I felt that the 12 story glass-covered Ford offices were Mecca. I had arrived as one of the new Whiz kids joining former executives McNamara, Arjay Miller, Tex Thorton and Ed Lundy.
Leapfrogging over all the divisions, I landed the most coveted job in finance for a young MBA from the Midwest. On my first day, the International Finance Department assigned me to their Foreign Desk. In many ways it was more influential than working in the State Department as we would move millions of dollars daily around the world.
Studying Kissinger and Metternich’s policies and techniques along with my in-depth knowledge of the car industry, led to my appointment as lead analyst for Ford’s South African, Venezuelan, Mexican, and Aerospace Divisions which made highly sensitive equipment for foreign governments.
My job description included working with each of these wholly-owned affiliates, reviewing their financial plans/business plans, arranging financing from our banks, and minimizing our exchange risk management.
I also spent hours reading financial articles on currencies and thinking of legal ways to bring capital back to Detroit in the form of dividends. To protect our overseas investments, I helped develop ‘Swaps’. This allowed the company to buy dollars at a pre-determined price, especially in countries with unstable currencies. Our treasury department was guaranteed its funds in U.S dollars if there was devaluation.
Since my handwriting was so bad, I was permitted to read, do research and attend meetings. It was an unbelievable job that suited me perfectly. At Finance, I took lots of liberties including wrangling myself into high-level meetings with executives.
At every opportunity I would corral a senior executive in the halls or request a meeting with them.
I would always run compulsively in an excited state between meetings at full speed creating quite a stir within the company. Unaware of the chain of command, I walked up to the 12th floor, the offices of Henry Ford, II and Iacocca and requested to speak to a Senior VP.
Within three months, Sidney Kelly, the Company Secretary met with me. We soon became friends. I also met with Gerald Greenwald who became chairman of United Airlines. Other executives included Robert Steven Miller, who went on to run more Fortune 500 firms than any other man in this country.
Then there was Ray Leboeuf the future CEO of Pittsburg Paint and Glass, one of the most successful companies in America. These meetings gave me the opportunity to express my views on industry trends related to marketing, manufacturing and finance
At every opportunity, my small group advocated the hiring of Dr. W. Edward Deming, the world’s leading guru on innovative quality products and control. His ideas were legendary calling for the creation of team meetings and the concept of self-improvement known as Kaizen. At that time Finance staffs personnel policies were built on the methodology of “Face offs”.
I would sit across from my boss— with a personnel executive, who sat motionless in a nearby chair. We were permitted to discuss any issues without been fired. The meeting was recorded and later reviewed by members of the Finance Staff.
Known as FINANCE STAFF DECIDES, this technique prevented executives from getting too close and clubby. It actually was a good therapeutic way to get at the truth. It also allowed painful issues, not to fester and get into the open. The process drove many decisions in personnel and policy. Having participated in three Face offs, I understood their value. These recordings, might one day, serve as an oral history of the company.
In a flurry of memos, I recommended that we should adopt new ideas of quality circles, staff meetings, and trainings. Deming’s concept of Kaizen was used by Japanese’s car companies to improve quality.
Subtle changes took place. More staff meetings were added. Lower level finance people started talking about Kaizen and Deming’s books which soon appeared on the desks in the library. I was proud of my contribution in this area. It was hoped that these improvements would eliminate Ford’s culture of fear and hostility that permeated the company.
However, not all of my analysis work at Ford reaped profits. After I left, the collapse of the Bolivar, the main currency of Venezuela cost the company at least a million dollars. My misunderstanding regarding this country’s international exchange rate strategy was my responsibility.
My competitors were taller, better looking and smarter then me. They dressed perfectly and were on average five years older. At 24, I did not know how to dress, wore dirty ties and old suits that did not fit well. Often, my judgments were immature.
In one case, the overhead allocations for different projects and car lines started to change. This impacted on the numbers as to whether or not a project was profitable. Allocations were very subjective and perfectly ethical. The lack of consistency concerned me. Assuming we were just using a different methodology, my fellow analysts informed me that the company was out to get Lee Iacocca by making his projects look less profitable. The company was building a case to fire him.
Both Mr. Ford and Iacocca were heroes to me. I was unaware of the hatred between them. In a colossal error of judgment, I went to my friend Mr. Iacocca’s secretary. There was something wrong with the overhead allocations. I hoped this observation would help them reconcile their differences.
My efforts soon blew up in my face. Right after showing her the adjusted pages, I returned to my cubicle on the 10th floor. Then I heard a lot of buzz: “He is on the floor.” Everyone froze—the secretaries sat straight up and pretended to type. Other analysts looked frightened and busy. My managers closed their doors and everything went stone cold quiet.
There was Mr. Iacocca and his right hand person confronting me. “Where is Mariotti?” he yelled. This begged for some sort of promotion, I thought. But his angry face was flushed with red and his eyes were twitching. He leaned over and yelled. “If you ever break the chain of command again you little twerp I will fire you on the spot” I almost fell over as he turned and walked away. Three weeks later, on July 13th 1978, he was fired and began another legendary career at Chrysler.
Years later in 1982, Iacocca1 wrote in his biography that wiretapping was an issue at Ford. I was told repeatedly that the surveillance equipment would first be tested at World Head Quarters. It was widely believed that Henry Ford would go out to lunch and on the way back would stop his car take out the latest wiretapping equipment and see if he could hear the hated Iacocca speaking in his office.
My first year was a disaster. It soon became apparent to everyone, but me, that I did not fit it. In retrospect I do not know what I was thinking. My first review was unsatisfactory. My supervisors immediately ordered me back to the Casting Division. They had fired me from my dream job.
My immediate reaction was a rushed visit to the Treasury Department’s bathroom on the 10th floor where I cried. Then I went outside and walked around The Glass House, Ford’s World Headquarters totally unaware that everyone could witness my agony.
My orders were to vacate the building by 5 pm that same day and report to my old job. I would be permanently exiled from the Glass House, my Mecca. My lifelong career and dreams were smashed. I was devastated
Suddenly, it dawned on me that Ford had made millions from many of my ideas. I would fight my demotion. Everything, here, stemmed from profit. On my first week working for Treasury, I recall reading a book ‘The Bankers’ by Martin Mayer. My comparative advantage was reading and writing memos with new ideas. In the evenings and every Sunday I would read, think and write trying to find new ideas to help the company.
Mayer talked about the Lombard Rate. When bankers calculate interest, they use 360 days as a denominator. So if you borrowed for 180 days, they divided by 360 not 365. This started several hundred years ago. Modern bankers never told you about it. My investigations at Ford revealed that all our banks used 360 days as the common dominator for a year instead of 365 thereby raising our interest rates.
My memo to this effect to Henry Ford II, was sent to the board and read aloud. This new financial analysis saved the company $480,000 a year.
When we got into financial trouble, the company saved $3 million a year. Working closely with top bankers such as Landon Hilliard of Brown Brothers Harriman, we did Ford’s first bankers’ acceptances, a financing technique where you can borrow at a lower rate. This enabled us to lower Ford’s interest rates about an eighth of a point on billions of dollars of debt. These savings to Ford were huge.
I had made Ford money with Hillard’s help. We became friends and today he serves as NFTE Board Chairman.
The Advance Warning System was another innovation instituted by me. Bank transfers from overseas financial institutions to our company were traditionally held for at least one day by each transfer agent. This meant that a $20 million payment to our treasury might take three days to clear before reaching us.
The Advance Warning System instructed the overseas treasurer’s office to let us know when the money was
going to be transferred. We would then insist on same-day credit generating hundreds of thousands of dollars in interest income.
These simple and profitable insights were my tickets back in. I steeled myself and walked into my supervisor’s office and asked for another chance. He looked at me with my old dusty shoes, my ill fitting suit and said: “Ok—you have ten minutes to talk. There is no chance. You just do not fit in. You are too wild, too loud and you do not obey the chain of command. You are untidy. At meals you slurp and are greedy. You talk too much and do not listen. You’re making our department look bad. It is just not working.”
Taking a deep breath, I knew it was adapt or die. I began my counter attack. “I make money. I saved the company $500,000 dollars per year at least. My insights covered most of our department’s costs. I want another chance. I want this to go all the way to Mr. Ford. He knows who I am and called me ‘Stevie the Wonder’ at the board meetings.”
There was long pause. I could hear myself breathing. Then my supervisor smiled and laughed. “You did make money and Henry knows who you are—Strong arguments. Let me talk to John Sagan “(VP Treasurer)
This was good news. John Sagan had taken a real liking to me, and Ford was fair. If you made money you got another chance.
I went home that night determined to change. This was the new me. Buying entirely new wardrobe, I learned to iron. Wearing cologne, I smelled nice. With a new shoe shine kit, I learned to polish my shoes. I practiced the skill of listening by looking at myself in my mirror without moving my lips. I worked on appearing serious and keeping a poker face. My posture changed and I stood up straighter than a marine.
After a sleepless night, Ford gave me back my old job. My stubborn determination paid off just the same way, I later confronted my troublesome students by expelling them out of the classroom and later taking them out to dinner.
Within a month I was appointed the senior analyst for the Finance Subcommittee which was the most coveted position at Finance Staff. My appointment leaped frogged over older and more traditional MBA’s. My competitors were jealous but intrigued by my rapid turnaround.
My assignment as the coordinator/financial analyst was to put together the financial books every month and deliver them to the Senior Vice Presidents on the 12th floor. This appointment brought me introductions to all the executives on that floor.
With my self-confidence restored, I began writing my own memos to drive policy. My services were requested repeatedly as the Finance Subcommittee representative to make presentations to higher management. I was their Wunderkind, an opportunity given only to fast tracked executives. I was now 25.
Then, I touched a raw nerve. Ford was doing business with a racist South African Government. I pushed for an aggressive strategy toward liberalizing its policies using economic leverage. My memos were honest and outspoken. However, I was shocked by their indifference.
The Reverend Leon Sullivan, an African-American preacher served as a board member of General Motors. When he was strip-searched in ‘74 in South Africa because he was black, he wrote The Sullivan Principles, a code of ethics for companies doing business overseas to avoid a repetition of this incident
In ‘77, we corresponded. He always supported me in my efforts as the analyst of South Africa to raise issues about Ford’s foreign policies with Governments. I knew that Henry Ford would agree with me. I was a subordinate grade 7 analyst and Henry was the top grade at 30 and the major owner. I was never able to directly communicate with him. A senior analyst was equivalent to an army first lieutenant, and there I am raising policy issues with generals. Known as Steve The Wonder, my high profile soon became a dark threat which I was oblivious to.
Ending apartheid was not my job. These issues and Ford’s relationships to certain governments was the beginning of my downfall.
My critical memos stating Ford’s personal policies were counter- productive, unprofitable and led to lower quality were not appreciated. These policies placed the blame on individuals for petty and minor things. This resulted in a hostile and anti-team culture. Over the years our market share for cars slid down. Quality issues forced up our production costs, leading to billions of dollar losses.
On several occasions, I pushed for aerodynamic designs. Designers were seldom allowed to attend meetings at Headquarters. I remember on one occasion, we brought 2 designers to a meeting. Arriving with clay and sticks, they shaped a model car that was aerodynamically sound. Aerodynamic cars traveled with greater speed and lower energy usage. The meeting ended early for lack of interest. I was also told to mind my own business.
The final straw came in September of 1979 when I was not invited to present at the Finance Subcommittee. My last link to power was gone. Soon afterwards, I was put on probation. Two weeks later, my supervisors Don Orthner and Bruce Blythe and a nice man from personnel, James Beurgoney told me to leave. I had been fired. I had my second chance. There would be no third one.
As I packed my personal effects to leave the Glass House for the last time, I sensed my impact on Ford. As it happened, the company did later adopt my recommendations in quality and personnel based on Deming’s work. Many of my friends and allies ended up running both Ford and Chrysler.
Over two years, Ford taught me many useful things. I learned that corporate culture was important and to ignore it was to invite disaster. The importance of doing a business plan, and recognizing importance of diverse opinions were key issues for me.
With an 18 month severance package, I was able to move to New York City, start my own business. While teaching in the New York City school system, I launched NFTE. My Bedford-Stuyvesant students become the beneficiaries of my Ford education. In 1982, I developed two hour weekly classes teaching salesmanship, marketing, international trade and how to create a business plan and manage funds.
My employment at this corporate giant gave me the tools to bring entrepreneurship education to at-risk youth around the world by focusing on the value of teamwork and courtesy. My transition from fast-track entrepreneur and later teaching was not easy. It was painful to leave Ford.
My car was parked in the very last row behind the building. Running and afraid of crying again in front of so many people working at their desks by the windows, I stumbled and then looked back. There in the window on the 11th floor two senior executives—Dennis Green and George Frame—supporters of my radical presentations— lined up to salute me.
1 - Iacocca, Lee. Iacocca: An Autobiography. Bantum Books, New York, 1984. Page 118.