"There has to be this pioneer, the individual who has the courage, the ambition to overcome the obstacles that always develop when one tries to do something worthwhile, especially when it is new and different."
by Alfred P Sloan
Alfred Pritchard Sloan, Jr. was born in New Haven, Connecticut, May 23, 1875, the first of five children of Alfred Pritchard Sloan, Sr. and Katherine Mead Sloan. His father, a machinist by training, was then a partner in a small company importing coffee and tea. In 1885 the family moved to Brooklyn where Alfred Jr. excelled as a student both in the public schools and at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute where he completed the college-preparatory course. After some delay in being accepted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (which considered him too young when he first applied), he was admitted in 1892 and took a degree in electrical engineering in three years as the youngest member of his graduating class.
Soon after graduation, Sloan became interested in bringing the clear-eyed approach of an engineer to the then largely chaotic world of business. He began his career as a draftsman in a small machine shop, the Hyatt Roller Bearing Company of Newark, New Jersey. At his urging, Hyatt was soon producing new antifriction bearings for automobiles.
At age 24, he became the president of Hyatt, where he supervised all aspects of the company's business. Hyatt bearings became a standard in the automobile industry, and the company grew rapidly under his leadership. In 1916 the Hyatt Roller Bearing Company, together with a number of other manufacturers of automobile accessories, merged with the United Motors Corporation, of which Mr. Sloan became president. Two years later that company became part of the General Motors Corporation — itself established in 1908 as the General Motors Company — and Mr. Sloan was named Vice President in Charge of Accessories and a member of the Executive Committee.
Mr. Sloan was elected President of General Motors in 1923, succeeding Pierre S. du Pont. By then he had developed his system of disciplined, professional management that provided for decentralized operations with coordinated centralized policy control. Applying it to General Motors, he set the corporation on its course of industrial leadership. The next 23 years, with Mr. Sloan as Chief Executive Officer, were years of enormous expansion for General Motors and of a steady increase in its share of the automobile market.
In 1937, Mr. Sloan was elected Chairman of the Board of General Motors. He continued as Chief Executive Officer until 1946 and didn't resign from the chairmanship until 1956. Mr. Sloan was then named Honorary Chairman of the Board, a title he retained until his death on February 17, 1966. For many years, he had devoted the largest share of his time and energy to philanthropic activities, both as a private donor to many causes and organizations and through the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which he established in 1934.
Because of Sloan's brilliant success he has long intrigued biographers, yet Sloan was a very private man who left few private papers and we are left with little more than the bare outlines of Sloan's life. He married Irene Jackson of Roxbury, Massachusetts, in 1898 but he and his wife had no children. He had few, if any, hobbies, didn't enjoy sports (though he owned a yacht once), didn't smoke, rarely drank, and was content to simply watch television after dinner. His sole passion was the General Motors Corporation, and since he believed that his company was only as strong as its weakest link, he was involved in almost every aspect of its administration and operation. Sloan's business memoir and only book, My Years with General Motors, written in the 1950s, was opposed by General Motors and withheld from publishing until an updated version was finally released in 1964.
Sloan was a skilled engineer and a brilliant businessman, but it was only through the efforts of his secretary and a talented ghost writer that the book evolved into its final form. He is remembered today with a complex mixture of admiration for his accomplishments, appreciation for his philanthropic legacy, as well as condemnation for his disregard for the safety of his workers and his cold, plutocratic detachment which invariably put profits before people.
Alfred P. Sloan died of heart failure on February 17, 1966. He was 90 years old. Mr. Sloan was acclaimed as one of the great captains of industry of his age and was honored with both the Richard A. Cook Gold Medal Award in 1951 and the the Hoover Medal in 1954.