DEARBORN, Mich. — Henry Ford, the godfather of mass production, was tormented by the possibility of running out of parts and raw materials. Distrustful of financiers—a spirit that animated his fervent anti-Semitism—he was especially suspicious of his suppliers. He was engrossed in stockpiling enough materials to ensure his assembly lines could keep running without debilitating shortages.

He purchased his own coal mines in Kentucky and Virginia, as well as railroads to transport their production to his factories. He amassed a fleet of ships that plied the Great Lakes, carrying a steady supply of iron ore and timber harvested from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. And he erected a huge factory outside Detroit on the Red River, a complex of factories designed to handle every step of turning raw materials into a finished automobile.

A century later, the Rouge factory is still in operation, but it is plagued by a shortage of a crucial component that would have horrified Mr. Ford. The company he founded can’t buy enough semiconductors, the computer chips that are the brains of the modern car.

Ford is heavily dependent on a single chip supplier located more than 7,000 miles away in Taiwan. With chips in short supply in the global economy, Ford and other automakers have been forced to halt production intermittently.

On a recent afternoon at Le Rouge, hundreds of workers wielded tools to assemble parts for Ford’s most popular vehicle, the F-150 pickup truck. Yet over the past few months, Ford has been forced to store thousands of finished vehicles in scattered lots across Dearborn – Henry Ford’s hometown – awaiting the arrival of chips capable of bringing them to life.

“It’s exactly the kind of thing Henry Ford feared,” said Matt Anderson, curator of transportation at Henry Ford, a Dearborn museum that explores his legacy and the history of American innovation. “He became increasingly obsessed with controlling every aspect of his production process.”

Popularly celebrated in his day, Henry Ford’s legacy is doomed today. He espoused feelings of white supremacy, as well as strident anti-Semitism. He unleashed brutal violence against the labor movement which eventually organized its factories. It has taken a monopolistic hold on the affordable automobile market.

Mr. Ford fully understood that supply chains were fragile, requiring constant review and backup plans. Despite his hostility to unions, he understood the value of generous wages in motivating workers. And he warned that investor demands for short-term gains could threaten longer-term resilience.

“He recognized that the supply chain was already fraught with risk,” said Mike Skinner, one of the founders of the Henry Ford Heritage Association. If he were here today, “Ford would have made its own chips,” Skinner added. “There is no doubt about it.”

The people who run Ford say that’s an oversimplification. The F-150 pickup produced in Rouge uses more than 800 types of chips, requiring dependence on specialists. And chips have a limited shelf life, which makes them difficult to store.

“It’s very complex,” Ford industrial platform director Hau Thai-Tang said in a recent interview. For Ford to make its own chips, or even limit its suppliers to North America, would be “a herculean task that would be asset and capital intensive, and just not realistic,” he added.

Yet Ford’s chip sourcing strategy, Mr. Thai-Tang acknowledged, was guided by the interests of a party that the company’s founder disdained as a potential threat to his company’s vitality. : the shareholder.

Ford’s adoption of so-called just-in-time inventory — in which warehouses are kept lean to minimize costs — “has been driven by capital markets and is focused on return on investment,” Mr. Thai-Tang.

Henry Ford frequently avoided demands for dividends—payments that enrich investors—while preferring to use his profits for expansion.

“We are against the kind of banker who sees a business as a melon to be cut,” Mr. Ford said in his memoir.

This tension burst into the public eye in 1916 when Mr. Ford clashed with some of his early investors, the Dodge brothers, who were themselves early innovators in the nascent automobile industry.

Ford’s profits the previous year had reached $16 million, and the company had over $50 million in cash stashed in the bank. Mr. Ford wanted the money to go towards the construction of his new factory, the Rouge.

The Dodge brothers insisted on the dividends and sued. They asked a court for an injunction that would freeze Ford’s Rouge expansion plans.

The court agreed, infuriating Mr. Ford: The Dodge brothers were jeopardizing not only his plans for the Rouge, but also the central organizing principle of his business.

“I don’t believe we should make such a terrible profit on our cars,” he said on the witness stand during the ensuing trial. “My policy has been to bring the price of the car down as fast as production will allow, and give the benefits to users and workers.”

The dispute was fueled in part by Mr. Ford’s decision, nearly two years earlier, to roughly double his workers’ wages to an unprecedented $5 a day. Other business leaders have accused him of jeopardizing their businesses by raising wages across American industry.

Mr Ford insisted he was simply being pragmatic. The advent of the assembly line had routinized the work of manufacturing cars. Many workers chafed at what looked like a demotion to robotic, repetitive tasks, and they quit en masse. Mr Ford has touted higher wages – partly in anticipation of a union campaign – as a way to attract enough labor to produce growing volumes of cars.

“A low-wage business is always precarious,” he said.

Given the resounding success of the Model T, Ford dominated the market for popular priced cars. Paying higher wages was therefore a way to protect his dominance, said Harvard Law School professor Mark J. Roe.

More broadly, Mr Ford described bountiful wages as the key to fostering the consumer economy he championed, with affordable cars as a way to push the contours of cities, opening up new forms of housing, offices and Hobbies.

“Most people in the country live on wages,” Mr. Ford wrote in his memoirs. “The scale of their life – the rate of their wages – determines the prosperity of the country.”

Cross-examined during the Dodge brothers’ trial, Mr Ford said the very purpose of his business was to provide jobs and build affordable cars, with the money only a by-product, according to an account by Richard Snow’s biography “I invented the Modern Age.”

“Business is a service, not a bargain,” Mr. Ford said.

The Michigan Supreme Court ultimately rejected this design. “A corporation is organized and operated primarily for the benefit of shareholders,” the court ruled.

This decision is now a landmark in the American shareholder’s march towards primacy.

The court ruled in favor of the Dodge brothers and ordered Ford to distribute approximately $25 million in dividends, although through an appeal Mr. Ford was granted the right to continue building the Rouge.

Later, Mr. Ford ousted the Dodge brothers, buying out their shares and taking control of his company.

But today, more than half of Ford Motor’s stock is controlled by Wall Street institutions like Vanguard, the mutual fund company, and BlackRock, the world’s largest asset management firm, which oversees now over $10 trillion.

In the three years before the pandemic, Ford distributed shareholder dividends of $7.9 billion, or 70% of its profits, according to data tabulated by University of Massachusetts Lowell economist William Lazonick.

Compared to other publicly traded companies, Ford has shown a greater propensity to limit dividends and preserve capital in the face of challenges, Lazonick said.

But chip companies have largely responded to their investors by limiting capacity – a strategy to keep prices high. Shortages of truck drivers and warehouse workers are often the result of downgrading these jobs, with pay cuts to reward shareholders.

Mr. Ford would not have accepted shortages resulting from an overreliance on a supplier unable to meet his company’s demands.

“He would probably fire whoever did this,” said Willy C. Shih, an international business expert at Harvard Business School. “He knew he had to take control of the company before he could deliver the car to the masses.”

The parking lots that now house F-150 pickup trucks awaiting tokens sit in the shadow of Ford’s Dearborn headquarters. One is across from Henry Ford Elementary School.

Late last year, the company announced a partnership to manufacture chips in the United States.

“We’re certainly reflecting on the past two years,” said Ford executive Mr. Thai-Tang.

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