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ARBOR OUTLOOK: Business lessons from 24 hours of Le Mans

Margaret R. McDowell
Walton Sun

Henry Ford II: "Give me one reason why I don’t fire everyone associated with this abomination, starting with you."

Carroll Shelby: "Well, sir, I was thinking about that very question as I sat out there in your lovely waiting room...I watched that little red folder, right there, go through four pairs of hands before it got to you. Of course, that don’t include the 22 or so other Ford employees who probably poked at it before it made its way up to the 19th floor... With all due respect, sir, you can’t win a race by committee."

Nominated for Best Picture last year, “Ford v Ferrari” is my kind of film. It has action, great acting and a wonderful storyline. Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt were originally cast in the lead roles, but Matt Damon and Christian Bale are hardly poor substitutes. Damon (as Carroll Shelby) and Bale (as Ken Miles) embody the same endearing characteristics exhibited by the actors in “The Right Stuff,” another great movie about innovation and daring; the characters harbor a thirst for speed combined with superb engineering skills.

Ford is attempting to capture the youth racing market. Lee Iacocca's Mustang, introduced in 1964, is only part of its marketing campaign. What Ford really wants is to be seen by young drivers as the maker of the world's fastest, most exciting cars.

To accomplish this goal, Lee Iacocca convinces Henry Ford II that Ford should buy Enzo Ferrari's company and team up to win the 24 hours of LeMans race. Ferrari turns Ford down and sells to Fiat instead. In so doing, Mr. Ferrari insults Mr. Ford personally and his company, and motivates Ford to hire the best engineers and drivers to challenge Ferrari at Le Mans.

Shelby is enlisted to build the race car, and wants his renegade friend Ken Miles to drive at LeMans. Miles doesn't fit the Ford company profile, but Henry Ford reluctantly agrees to let Miles drive at LeMans after Miles wins the Daytona 500.

I know nothing about race cars and have never attended a racing event. You may not have either. But the film is about much more than racing. It's really about business innovation. Granted, it helps to have a checkbook like Henry Ford's. But first there has to be the desire to compete and succeed.

Let's consider two of the primary business lessons in the film: one, too many cooks often spoil the pudding. Shelby says so to Ford in his Detroit office after his team's first failed attempt at Le Mans. Ultimately, there must be a Harry Truman (the buck stops here) person in every successful organization, a visionary unafraid to make a decision and live with the results.

Secondly, a business must perform successfully, regardless of its public image. If talented people who create victory don't fit the mold, then the mold must change. You can't argue with success. You can't be so concerned with what you look like that you fail to get the job done.

Margaret R. McDowell, ChFC, AIF, author of the syndicated economic column "Arbor Outlook," is the founder of Arbor Wealth Management, LLC, (850-608-6121 — www.arborwealth.net), a “fee-only” registered investment advisory firm located near Sandestin.