October 22, 2015

Henry J. Kaiser and GM’s Alfred Sloan, influential industrialists

America's top industrialist of the 20th century influenced everyday life with automobile transportation, national infrastructure, and health care.

Henry J. Kaiser and General Motors' Alfred Sloan, from Kaiser Richmond shipyard newspaper Fore 'n' Aft, 8/25/1944

In 2005, Forbes magazine polled their readers for a list of their 20 most influential businessmen of the 20th century.

Henry J. Kaiser was number 11, Alfred P. Sloan was number 12.

Sloan served as president, chairman, and CEO of the General Motors Corporation from the 1920s through the 1950s. He led GM to become the largest corporation on earth and is credited with improving automobile technology and offering the public a choice of colors and styles (a positive spin on the invention of planned obsolescence).

Henry J. Kaiser’s role in dam and ship building was credited in the Forbes paean, only to set the stage for the big ticket item:

“But perhaps his greatest feat was providing his workers with health care coverage. Kaiser saw his prepaid health coverage plan as a way to temper labor unrest and leave the government out of the process, while bettering humanity. He made public campaigns haranguing fellow business leaders to follow his lead. Kaiser’s vision spawned the U.S. health care industry.”

While it's arguable that Kaiser "saw his prepaid health coverage plan as a way to temper labor unrest" (he'd long before learned the benefits of proactive cooperation with labor), the rest of the description is accurate. The man could be a contrarian.

This photo of the two industrial giants together was published in the weekly Kaiser Richmond shipyard newspaper Fore ‘n’ Aft, August 25, 1944. At the time, Henry Kaiser was the most prolific private shipbuilder in the world, yet here he is, proudly showing off the two-year-old Oakland Permanente Foundation hospital that cared for shipyard workers.