Case Study – Gustavus Franklin Swift

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Many have heard of business titans such as Cornelius Vanderbilt (Railroads), Andrew Carnegie (Steel), John D. Rockefeller (Oil), and John Pierpont Morgan (Financier). Far fewer have heard of Gustavus Franklin Swift, the meatpacking titan.

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Gustavus or “Stave” as his friends would call him was a pioneer. He would turn the cattle-meat industry upside down by focusing on shipping meat instead of shipping cattle. This might seem easy, but he first had to invent refrigerated railcars, refrigerated coolers, build a national infrastructure for ice cultivation and ice houses. He had to fight with the railroads who liked shipping cattle versus dressed beef (more tonnage) and a prejudiced consumer who thought it was disgusting to eat beef that was slaughtered and shipped from a thousand miles away. Gustavus Swift persevered and wore down his adversaries. A close friend of Swift said of him, “He had abiding faith in his ultimate success. He was afraid of nothing.”

Henry Ford credit’s Swift in his autobiography, My Life and Work, to opening his eyes to the virtues of using moving conveyer systems and fixed work stations in industrial applications. Swift exuded many of today’s intelligent fanatic best practices. He hated titles. He rarely hired from outside the company – He promoted from within. He was one of the first businessmen to give equity to employees, customers, distributors, suppliers to promote long-term loyalty and partnership. He knew every aspect and every detail of his business. His vision always outdistanced his capital. He was constantly raising capital for expansion. He teetered on the brink of failure several times. His own employees, many of them, loaned the company money to keep it solvent during crisis. In the end he prevailed, and at his death in 1903, Swift & Company was one of the largest companies in the world.

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