The Founding CEO

February 20, 2014

We once suggested, on the anniversary of his birth, that although he was conventionally thought of as an explorer Columbus might more accurately be described as an enormously influential (and lucky, perhaps even failed) entrepreneur.  He pursued an unconventional idea, took a risk, made a huge miscalculation, got lucky, and parlayed all that into wealth from product lines he hadn’t anticipated.

This Saturday marks the 282nd anniversary of George Washington’s birth, which we’d like to honor with the re-telling of a similar tale:  although he is best remembered for his military and political accomplishments, our first president was in fact a very successful entrepreneur.

In Birthday of an Entrepreneur, John Berlau writes that Washington, who was neither poor nor as rich, inherited Mount Vernon from his older brother and transformed it “from a sleepy tobacco farm into an early industrial village.”  (Recall that their father had died when Washington was just eleven years old.)

Compared to the many sprawling Virginia estates of the time, 2,000-acre Mount Vernon was undistinguished when Washington acquired it. Although Washington received a boost in wealth when he married the widow Martha Custis, running a productive farm against the backdrop of British trade restrictions and taxes, as well as nature’s unpredictability, was not an easy task.  Washington began buying the land around Mount Vernon, building a beautiful homestead, and pioneering modern agricultural practices such as crop rotation.

Berlau writes that the future president abandoned tobacco farming – the most common cash crop of his native Virginia – because he worried it was damaging the soil and thought the farm ought to diversify to avoid “unprofitable returns,” as he noted in 1765.

Washington chose wheat as his main cash crop, and, pioneering the integration of related enterprises, he became a manufacturer of two products from his crop: flour and distilled whiskey.

Recently replicated on their original foundations at Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens (with support from the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States), Washington’s gristmill and distillery are architectural wonders that anticipated modern factories.

In The Unexpected George Washington, Harlow Giles Unger calls Washington “one of America’s leading entrepreneurs” and in George Washington on Leadership Richard Brookhiser writes that “[Washington’s] agribusiness and real estate portfolio made him America’s richest man. . . . He was the Founding CEO.”

(Berlau also took care to add, “Like that of other Founding Fathers, Washington’s career was stained by the evils of slavery, and this extended to his business enterprises. But his correspondence shows that Washington realized this contradiction more than most of the Founders, and he worked tirelessly the last few years of his life to free all of his slaves upon his and Martha’s death.”)

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