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Review : the creation of Xerox

Joe Wilson and the Creation of Xerox By Charles D Ellis. Published by John Wiley & Sons, 2006.

Christine Harland is a director of Camden Writers.

This is the story of Chester Carlson, a man who was once so poor that he lived in a chicken coop, and his confluence with Joe Wilson, the president of Haloid, a small family-owned manufacturing business in Rochester, New York. Thirty-six-year-old Wilson, a man of true vision, took his firm to the brink of bankruptcy on the instinctive conviction that Carlson's idea for a revolutionary office copier could transform Haloid into a great company. The result of that gamble was the Xerox Corporation.

In the early 1940s, Chester Carlson, with a very rough prototype of his electrophotographic copier in hand, approached possible manufacturing partners, including IBM. Displaying what Carlson referred to as "an enthusiastic lack of interest", few companies bothered to answer his letter. The Battelle Memorial Institute, a non-profit research group based in Ohio, was the first to proclaim it a "good research gamble", and it was through them that Haloid, then a small company manufacturing photographic paper, became a partner in 1948.

Joe Wilson operated on traditional principles. He was a decent individual, philanthropic, devoted to family, involved in community and committed to his company and the people who worked in it. Chester Carlson's reserved and understated ways and strong intelligence struck a chord in Wilson, and the two men, both looking to better their circumstances, immediately liked and trusted one another when they met in 1946.

That rapport made up in part for the fact that Carlson's invention, which he patented in 1940, had little to recommend it. The working model was basic and involved a strip of cat's fur that cleaned the toner off the cylinder. Joe Wilson's father was highly sceptical, as were most of the scientists who worked on the project – at least at first.

"As soon as the process is perfected," Wilson assured his Board, "it will be worth every cent we pay." The "as soon as" was to stretch into 12 years. Wilson admitted that the only reason for his continued optimism was his lack of technical expertise.

By the mid-1950s, the Xerox 914 was evolving at Haloid. In 1954, IBM's Tom Watson approached Haloid looking for an exclusive manufacturing license on Chester Carlson's patents: Wilson and his board turned down IBM's extortionate terms. Eastman Kodak, 3M, RCA and ABDick said no to Wilson's proposal for a manufacturing partnership. When IBM approached consultants Arthur D Little to explore the market for an office copier, ADL returned the verdict that there was no future for such a piece of equipment.

"We recommend that you drop the project," they said and IBM did just that. Haloid's own consultants, Ernst & Ernst, came back with the same opinion – don't bother. Wilson pushed ahead anyway. "It just goes to prove," said Russell Dayton of Battelle, "that if you've got something unique, you don't take a poll."

The story of Haloid and the Xerox machine is a case study for family business. Historical relationships with suppliers, dating back to Wilson's father, were challenged when parts were not to spec. Diplomatically, Joe let them know that things had changed. Joe Wilson sought out new and aggressive scientists and engineers and brought consultants on board to compensate for gaps that neither new nor old employees could fill.

As the scientists at Haloid conquered one problem after another, the excitement grew. The author compares the comradeship and enthusiasm at Haloid during that period to wartime, when people are united by a common goal and deliver a 150% of their time and energy. Slowly, the new Xerox machine took shape and by the early 60s, the Xerox copier was on the market and the rest is history.

Joe Wilson's drive was about more than money. He wanted to grow a great company, his company. When the time came, Joe Wilson passed the baton with characteristic grace, to Peter McColough, more by proxy than by choice. Wilson was characteristically committed to backing off and letting the chosen leader lead. Wilson's long-term tendency to run his company with a benign Board of Directors also backfired here, as there was no one in place with the power or will to counteract McColough's ill-advised mergers and acquisitions programme. As the company changed drastically, Joe Wilson sank increasingly into depression.

Joe Wilson was spared a lot of the bad news as Xerox changed dramatically under McColough. In December 1971, at age 61, Wilson died during lunch at Nelson and Happy Rockefeller's apartment in New York City. Chester Carlson, whose revolutionary invention had made Joe Wilson a stunningly wealthy man, had died three years earlier, in 1968, at age 62 leaving over $100 million in his estate.

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