“Forget past mistakes. Forget failures. Forget everything except what you’re going to do now and do it.” This advice is attributed to William Durant, founder of General Motors.
Interesting man, William Durant. He became a millionaire building horse-drawn carriages. When horseless carriages arrived in his home state of Michigan, he was offended by the “noisy and smelly contraptions” that frightened animals. Ever the entrepreneur, however, he tried one in 1902, hoping he might like it enough to add automobiles to his inventory. But he wasn’t impressed until he drove a car built by David Buick a couple of years later.
Buick, a successful plumber, didn’t pursue automobile manufacturing and his company was sold twice before Durant reorganized Buick Motor Company in 1904. This was the beginning of a remarkable journey. After achieving success with the Buick automobile, Durant formed General Motors in New Jersey in 1908, and the company bought Buick.
In GM’s first two years, Durant brought 30 firms into the company, with 11 auto makers, including Oldsmobile, Cadillac and Pontiac. But one of his non-automobile ventures devastated company finances. Some bankers agreed to bail out GM but wanted to dissolve the company. GM’s directors offered the bankers an enormous amount of stock and control of the board if they would keep GM alive. The bankers accepted, Durant was ousted and a five-man committee was installed to run GM for the loan’s duration.
Durant was not dismayed. He formed other businesses, including Chevrolet Motor Company in partnership with Louis Chevrolet who had built a high-quality car. While Chevrolet was visiting Europe in 1913, Durant changed the design to a smaller car to achieve high volume. The company became a huge success, but Louis Chevrolet didn’t like what Durant had done, so he left. Durant used profits to buy GM stock, which had come back to life under the guidance of company president Charles Nash and new head of Buick, Walter Chrysler.
By the 1916 GM board meeting, Durant’s Chevrolet Motor Company had purchased almost half of the GM stock, and by the end of the meeting Durant regained control of GM. He merged Chevrolet into the company and continued to wheel and deal as he again grew GM by acquiring various companies and building an empire that boomed at the end of World War I.
Walter Chrysler finally had enough of Durant’s flamboyant, gambling management style and quit. His departure affected GM negatively, which, along with other financial challenges, caused GM stock to plunge. Bankers demanded Durant resign in late 1920. His second and final ouster caused him to lose $100 million dollars of his own money. With his departure, bankers and investors began to turn around GM over the weekend. Falling to $9.50 on Friday, at which Durant was forced to sell, the stock opened at $16.50 on Monday.
Durant then founded Durant Motors. He had no product, but as a great salesman he gained the faith of investors and the good will of dealers. Before production on the Durant Four began in 1921, he had 30,000 dealer orders. The next year, he brought out the Star, a low-priced car to compete with Ford and Chevrolet.
Durant was on his way again when another financial disaster hit. He had built a $50-million fortune in the bull market of the 20s, but Durant Motors went broke when the ’29 crash came. Still with a plant, Durant signed a deal to build and market the Mathis, a small French car, but the Depression prevented this from materializing. Durant filed for bankruptcy in 1936, listing debts of $914,231 and assets of $250.
Durant opened a bowling alley in Michigan in 1940, with plans for 50 more nationwide. A massive stroke finally brought him down in 1942, and he and his wife moved to New York, where they lived quietly until he died in 1947.
Another automobile legend, Henry Ford, made a statement that could have summed up Durant’s life and be a challenge to everyone: “A setback is the opportunity to begin again…”
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