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Joseph Wilson: Xerox’s true grit

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Joseph C. Wilson, the man behind the first Xerox copier, created an industry from scratch because he was willing to ignore market studies and act on faith.

Research told Wilson it was wrong-headed to make a big, complicated copier when people said they wanted small, simple machines. But imagination, he believed, lets you create something that people will want when it’s ready, even if they don’t want it now.

Wilson stuck with it. Eking out the slimmest of profits from his core business in photographic paper, he plowed about $20 million into developing a copier over two decades, finally hitting it big with revenues of $500 million in 1965.

Some other traits of this quiet leader:

He did his homework. As a student, Wilson was disciplined, inquisitive and prepared, says his biographer. He enjoyed learning.

He was cautious.
“Never make a promise you cannot keep, and say nothing rather than something if you are in doubt,” he said, describing lessons he was taught as a child.

He believed in innovation.
“The greatest strength against adversity is to have a stream of new innovations all the time,” he said.

He demanded quality.
Despite his hunger for new products, Wilson refused to hurry his team, preferring to get an invention right. When 3M beat Xerox with its Thermofax copier, Wilson took a lot of heat, but he pointed out that his rival’s machines produced copies that were too expensive and faded over time. Xerox won in the end.

He took his duties seriously. Because he never asked employees to do anything he wouldn’t do, Wilson forced himself to give speeches. Once, after telling a slightly off-color opening joke, he turned to find two bishops sitting there. After that experience, Wilson felt he could never be more embarrassed in public speaking, so he relaxed and found his voice.

— Adapted from “He Had An Eye For Innovation,” Curt Schleier, Investor’s Business Daily.

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