Case | HBS Case Collection | January 2008 (Revised March 2011)

Henry J. Kaiser and the Art of the Possible

by Anthony J. Mayo, Mark Benson and David Chen

Abstract

From his humble beginnings as a local salesman in New York, Henry J. Kaiser rose to become one of the leading industrialists of 20th century America. Though he had no technical engineering training, Kaiser mastered the management and execution of plans for several large scale projects that contributed to the growth and improvement of contemporary America, including the Hoover Dam, one of the wonders of the modern world. During World War II, when the United States desperately needed ships to deliver manpower and supplies overseas, Kaiser, who had never built a ship before, rose to the challenge and successfully directed the construction of thousands of Liberty ships. These merchant vessels gave the U.S. Navy the overwhelming might to claim victory at sea for America and her Allies. He pioneered shipbuilding techniques that not only allowed him to build ships at unprecedented rates, but he also spurred the whole shipbuilding industry to do the same. His fame made him the object of envy and scorn for shipbuilders all across America, yet he had never built a ship before the war. All of Kaiser's endeavors, from his beginnings in the construction industry all the way to his development of Hawaii's urban landscape, demonstrated his willingness to embrace the unknown, and his determination in the face of setbacks. His combination of entrepreneurship, perseverance, and compassion made him the embodiment of the American spirit.

Keywords: History; Mission and Purpose; Transition; Management Practices and Processes; Construction; Corporate Entrepreneurship; Leadership Style; Business History; Business Growth and Maturation; Civil Society or Community; Business Strategy; Planning; Construction Industry; Shipping Industry; United States;

Citation:

Mayo, Anthony J., Mark Benson, and David Chen. "Henry J. Kaiser and the Art of the Possible." Harvard Business School Case 408-072, January 2008. (Revised March 2011.)