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George Washington, builder of business

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in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers

Not too many people think of George Washington as a business leader.

In truth, the father of our country strove to make his Virginia home, Mount Vernon, the most modern, diversified, efficient and profitable plantation possible. He not only ramped up his farming operation phenomenally over five years (his annual grain production alone grew from 257 bushels to 6,241), but he also built entirely new enterprises, including fisheries and a distillery.

He did it through leadership encapsulated in these elements:

Expertise. Washington kept abreast of the latest theories and techniques. He also used his expertise to improve efficiency. The automated milling machinery he installed in 1791 reduced the labor requirement from five men to three. People today who suggest that leaders don’t need a thorough grounding in their subjects are simply wrong.

Innovation. The two-story, round threshing barn Washington designed was the first of its kind in 1795. Even more impressive were his fisheries. While Native Americans and then European settlers had always harvested fish during the spring run up the Potomac River, the practice took farmhands away from the critical spring-planting days. Seeing an opportunity to ship salted fish out to the booming West Indies, Washington set up three fisheries. Sometimes, he leased them to tenants, freeing his laborers to work the fields. The fisheries marked his first success at largescale commercialization.

Experimentation. Washington bought and tested the latest tools and equipment, making his own modifications. He tried new farming practices such as crop rotation and composting. He also managed livestock, using selective breeding to build stronger herds. He cross-bred donkeys with horses to produce mules because tests had convinced him that mules showed more endurance and required less food than workhorses.

Trust. The general both trusted and was trusted. Not even a month after Washington had hired James Anderson to take over the huge estate’s day-to-day operations, Anderson proposed establishing a distillery. Washington needed some convincing. He feared that the business would attract unsavory characters and proposed locating the operation near the mansion, where he could keep an eye on things. But Anderson persuaded his boss to put the distillery near the gristmill and river for efficient processing and shipping.

Calculated risk. The distillery succeeded immediately. In fact, its expansion—based on Anderson’s recommendations— grew the business so quickly that Washington ran into a cash-flow problem. With five stills running full time, the operation quickly consumed his own corn, and he had to buy it elsewhere, depleting cash. But the risk paid off. Within a year, the five-still operation set a pace that would yield roughly eight times the production of his previous two-still operation. To offset the need for cash, Washington turned to barter and to wider markets, eventually shipping spirits to as many as 270 clients. And, unlike farming, the expanded distillery stayed in production year-round.

— Adapted from “George Washington: Patriot,President, Planter and Purveyor of Distilled Spirits,” Philip Brandt George, American History.

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