Dodge v. Ford: What Happened and Why?
Behind Henry Ford’s business decisions that led to the widely taught, famous-in-law-school Dodge v. Ford shareholder primacy decision were three industrial organization structures that put Ford in a difficult business position. First, Ford Motor had a highly profitable monopoly and needed much cash for the just-begun construction of the River Rouge factory, which was said to be the world’s largest when completed. Second, to stymie union organizers and to motivate his new assembly-line workers, Henry Ford raised worker pay greatly; Ford could not maintain his monopoly without sufficient worker buy-in. And, third, if Ford explicitly justified his acts as in pursuit of the monopoly profit in the litigation, the Ford brand would have been damaged with both his workforce and the car buyers. The transactions underlying Dodge v. Ford and resulting in the court order that a very large dividend be paid should be reconceptualized as Ford Motor Company and its auto workers splitting the “monopoly rectangle” that Ford Motor’s assembly line produced, with Ford’s business requiring tremendous cash expenditures to keep and expand that monopoly. Hence, a common interpretation of the litigation setting—that Ford let slip his charitable purpose when he could have won with a business judgment defense—should be reconsidered. Ford had a true business purpose to cutting back the dividend—spending on labor and a vertically integrated factory to solidify his monopoly and splitting the monopoly profit with labor— but he would have jeopardized the strategy’s effectiveness by boldly articulating it.
The existing main interpretations of the corporate law decision and its realpolitik remain relevant—such as Ford seeking to squeeze out the Dodge brothers by cutting the Ford dividend to deny the Dodge brothers cash for their own car company. But those interpretations must take a back seat, as none fully encompasses the industrial setting—of monopoly, incipient union organizing, and a restless workforce. Without accounting for Ford Motor’s monopoly, the River Rouge construction, and the related labor tensions, we cannot fully understand the Dodge v. Ford controversy. Stakeholder pressure can more readily succeed in a firm having significant economic rents, a setting that seems common today and was true for Ford Motor Company in the 1910s.
Mark J. Roe