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The development of the 914 copier
launched Xerox Corporation and
marked the beginning of a decade of record breaking growth in the 1960s that
the firm now calls the ‘atomic decade’. The 914 copier moved Xerox to the
billion dollar sales level and undreamed of profits, faster than any company in
history. Fortune ranked the 914 the most successful product ever marketed in
the USA. In the 1980s, Apple
Computer, Compaq Computer, and Reebok received much acclaim for reaching the
billion dollar mark still faster, but Xerox
set its record at a time when the dollar was worth three times as much. Just
2years after the 914 was introduced, Xerox
made the Fortune 500 list, and just 8 years after that Xerox was ranked the60th
largest firm in the USA.
Meeting the demands of such rapid
growth depended on a workforce that was totally committed to the firm and what
it was trying to do. For example, the massive basic R&D effort required to initially
develop the 914 had left the company so poor it could not afford to rent a
building with round the clock heating. Yet in order to refine the machine to
make the promised spring shipping date, engineers had to work 24hours a day.
Consequently, engineers at Xerox’s Rochester,
New York, plant spent much of the
winter of 1959-1960 working without heat. Because the machines themselves gave
off some heat, the engineers, bundled in hunting jackets and insulated boots,
huddled under blankets draped over their equipment to trap what warmth they
could. As a group, they worked 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, under these
conditions to get the new product out on time.
This kind of determination did
not stop once the machine was developed. As customers discovered the
convenience of photocopying, demand quickly grew and far exceeded even the
wildest dreams. To meet this demand required still further acts of heroism. In
one such instance, low supplies of a part made by a vendor in Chattanooga
threatened to shut down production in Rochester.
The director of manufacturing and a purchasing agent made an emergency trip to
acquire the needed components, but their plane was diverted to Washington, D.C.,
because of a snowstorm in Tennessee.
The railroad from D.C. to Chattanooga
would not accept their airline tickets as credit, so the pair tracked down a
local Xerox employee to borrow money for tickets. When they finally reached Chattanooga, they had to
drive the taxi from the station because the local drivers were unaccustomed to
driving on ice. Once they got the parts, they split up and took alternate
routes back to Rochester,
in hopes of improving the chances of one person’s getting through. In the end,
the unshaven pair traveled 72hours nonstop, living on peanut butter sandwiches
and sleeping in their seats – but the production line never stopped.
Acts of personal commitment such
as these became important symbols in establishing a ‘can do’ culture that was
critical to Xerox’s early success, and they live on today as part of the
folklore that still shapes Xerox’s future – more than
decades after they first took place. It is significant that these were not the
actions of just the CEO or the company’s founder. While those individuals did
play a tremendously influential role in shaping Xerox through their personal
actions, they were clearly not alone. Individuals throughout the organization
can display leadership and exert influence though their own personal actions,
which can later take on symbolic importance.