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#120 Billy Durant (Creator of General Motors)
April 11th, 2020 | E120

What I learned from reading Billy Durant Creator of General Motors: The Story of the Flamboyant Genius Who Helped Lead America into the Automobile Age by Lawrence Gustin.


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[0:32] DURANT MAY BE THE MOST IMPORTANT AUTOMOBILE PIONEER: Of all the colorful men who propelled the United States into the automobile age, Billy Durant was perhaps the most unusual, and from an organizational standpoint in the pioneering era, the most important. Durant had a hand in shaping the beginnings of three of the four major American automobile manufacturing corporations that exist today.

[4:16] HIS LIFE STORY HAS A SURPRISING END: The guy founded General Motors, Chrysler, and Frigidaire. Three gigantic, successful companies. How does he die with no money?

[6:04] DURANT TRIED TO PROTECT HIS INVESTORS: He had an attitude, not a common among men of big money. He tried to protect the people who invested with him, even if this protection would break him. Finally, it did. And when he was unable to save the dollars of his supporters he plunged from multimillionaire to bankruptcy.

[10:29] DURANT WAS SKEPTICAL OF AUTOMOBILES: Durant starts out as an automobile skeptic. He builds the General Motors of horse-drawn transportation and then takes that same playbook and uses it again to do the same thing in the automobile industry once he gets over his skepticism.

[17:08] IF SOMETHING IS IMPORTANT TO YOUR BUSINESS YOU NEED TO CONTROL IT: We have seen this over and over and over and over again in these stories throughout the history of entrepreneurship. If something is important to your business, you need to control it. Durant line up a big contract for the buggies only to find that Patterson chanced upon the same buyer and told him that since the product was actually being made at his factory, the buyer could save money by buying directly from him. Durant that from then on they would build all their own vehicles.

[19:12] DURANT ON SALES: Assume that the person you are talking to knows as much or more than you do. Do not talk too much. Give the customer time to think. In other words, let the customer sell himself. That system works best when you have a good product. Look for a self - seller. If you cannot find one, make one.

[21:48] ON CONTROL. HENRY FORD REALIZED THIS. THE DODGE BROTHERS DID TOO: We started out as assemblers with no advantage over our competitors. We paid about the same prices for everything we purchased. We realized that we were making no progress and would not unless and until we manufactured practically every important part that we used. We proceeded to purchase plants and the control of plants, which made it possible for us to build up the largest carriage company in the United States.

[31:36] DURANT WAS AT THE RIGHT PLACE, AT THE RIGHT TIME, WITH THE RIGHT SET OF SKILLS: For the first time, he began to see that the automobile had a future. The stockholders of Buick were so desperate that they were willing to turn over controlling interest to him. And perhaps most important, the Durant-Dort Carriage Company had a large, idle factory. 

[39:11] IT WAS HARD TO RAISE MONEY FOR GENERAL MOTORS: I had a long, hot session with our friends in New York yesterday and was pretty nearly used up at the finish. If you think it is an easy matter to get money from New York capitalists to finance a motor car proposition in Michigan, you have another guess coming. Money is hard to get owing to a somewhat unaccountable feeling of uneasiness and a general distrust of the automobile proposition.

[44:25] BILLY DURANT’S MASTER PLAN FOR GENERAL MOTORS: Durant's aim was nothing less than to gain control of some of the biggest and best automobile companies in America. But he also wanted to get in on the ground floor with companies just starting. Durant: “They could be purchased by exchanging small amounts of stock, and who could tell what their patents, products, and inventions might bring? The automobile industry was in its infancy, the public was fickle, the only sure road to power and success was to have a wide range of products. I figured if I could acquire a few more companies like the Buick, I would have control of the greatest industry in this country. A great opportunity, no time to lose, I must get busy.”

[51:30] DON VALENTINE TEACHES YOU BUSINESS IN TWO MINUTES: There are two things in business that matter, and you can learn this in two minutes --you don't have to go to business school for two years: high gross margins and cash flow. All companies that go out of business do so for the same reason- they run out of money." —Don Valentine

[55:10] GENERAL MOTORS RUNS OUT OF MONEY! DURANT IS FORCED OUT: The bankers demanded control of the company. Durant had no choice but to accept. Automotive historians have generally described the terms as exorbitant. And Durant, in his memoirs, fumed: “The $ 15 million loan finally offered had outrageous terms which I was forced to accept. Under the terms, I received $ 12,250,000 cash ( not $ 15 million ), for which I gave $ 21,600,000 of the best securities ever created — the enormous interest of $ 9,350,000.

[57:57] DURANT’S STRATEGY FOR CHEVROLET WAS TO FOCUS ON THE LOW PRICED MARKET BECAUSE IT HAD MORE DEMAND THAN SUPPLY : Henry Ford couldn't build enough cars to satisfy the entire demand for a low priced automobile.

[1:04:50] THE UNUSUAL HAPPENS, USUALLY. BILLY DURANT IS THE OPPOSITE OF HETTY GREEN OR MARK SPITZNAGEL: In 1920 the boom that had followed the end of WWI came to a rather abrupt halt and the United States slumped into a sharp recession. The price of GM stock began to decline steadily. GM sold 47,000 cars a month. By November monthly sales were down to 12,000. Durant realized GM needed money.

[1:10:26] BILLY DURANT’S LIFE SHOULD HAVE HAD A HAPPIER ENDING: All that can be said for certain about Durant’s last days at GM is that his activities in the stock market placed him in an extremely vulnerable situation. Louis Kaufman said in 1927 that had Durant not become involved in the market he would have been worth $500 million and still in charge of GM. 


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