This summer's best reads can be found on the business shelf
This summer's best reads can be found on the business shelf
Greed. Ambition. Backstage conniving. Who says a book about companies and competition has to be dull? Deals. Blunders. Political tricks. It's all on the shelf in your local business bookstore. Where better to look for summertime reading?
The day is long past when "business book" automatically meant a title like Strategic Planning and Management Handbook. The headlines in the financial pages these days trumpet all sorts of shakeups in the economic landscape: companies merged out of existence, strangled by competitors, blindsided by sudden changes. You don't have to be a veteran of the corporate wars to know that newspapers rarely get the whole story. That "retirement" of a chief executive officer? Probably not as bloodless as the smiling faces in the photo suggest. The announcement of a troubled company's turnaround? Maybe not as quick 'n' easy as the press releases would have you believe.
The new business books pick up where the papers leave off, picking apart the personalities and strategies that drove the action. Their working assumptions: every shakeup means that someone won big while someone else lost big; and if the outcome was worth a headline, the game itself probably involved conspiracy and intrigue worthy of Julius Caesar. The best of the new genre captures not only who did what to whom, but why. As every businessperson knows, the marketplace is a battleground of hopes and fears as well as profits and losses. As every novelist knows, it's emotions that keep readers turning the pages.
Of course, not every corporate saga lends itself to a suspenseful story. But there are plenty of recent titles that will entertain as well as inform. Some suggestions:
The Reckoning, by David Halberstam (William Morrow & Co., 1986). Halberstam's subject: the fall of the once-proud American auto industry and the rise of its once-humble Japanese counterpart. You haven't read about the decline of U.S. manufacturing until you've read this book, a tale of two companies told through the lives of the people who shaped them. Ford Motor Co. and Nissan Motor Co., in Halberstam's account, are settings for blood feuds and blinding ambitions; the familiar story of Henry Ford II vs. Lee Iacocca is one bitter battle among many. But they are also repositories for the dreams and schemes of otherwise-anonymous managers and workers. That makes the two corporations compelling stand-ins not only for their industry but for their countries' disparate economies.
In reporting the book, Halberstam spent eight months in Japan, interviewing through interpreters. Once you read his account of Nissan, you'll never again assume that economic success was somehow built into Japanese culture. Twenty years ago Nissan built chintzy, unattractive, underpowered cars. U.S. operations manager Yutaka Katayama -- who, says Halberstam, "often wondered why anyone bothered to buy" one -- could only gaze in awe at the inroads that imports like Volkswagen were making in the mammoth American market. Slowly, Nissan engineers learned how to design better cars, workers learned how to make them, marketers learned how to sell them. Japan's eventual success, by this account, was no more mysterious than Avis's when the once-languishing car-rental company first took on giant Hertz. They tried harder.
Greed and Glory on Wall Street: The Fall of the House of Lehman, by Ken Auletta (Warner Books paperback, 1986). Auletta's story is pure Wall Street soap, with avarice and power plays in lieu of sex and violence. Lehman Brothers chairman Peter C. Peterson appoints securities-trading whiz Lewis L. Glucksman president and co-chief executive. Glucksman, no slave to gratitude, repays Peterson by squeezing him out. Alas, the new king has his own mutinous generals, who greedily scheme to sell the firm out from under him. On May 11, 1984, the plot came to fruition. Lehman Brothers Kuhn Loeb, as it was then known, was sold to Shearson/American Express (it's now Shearson/Lehman Brothers, an AmEx subsidiary). The price: roughly $380 million, most of it divided among Lehman's 72 partners.
Glucksman, his wounded pride assuaged by $15.6 million, took his money and ran. Other top partners -- some still in their thirties -- had to make do with $6 million to $10 million apiece. Auletta seems a little shocked that Lehmanites were so money-hungry as to sell out their partnership. Why does he think they became investment bankers in the first place? The real question isn't whether Lehman should have survived -- no one outside lower Manhattan is likely to care -- but why corporate America continues to provide these paper entrepreneurs with such big slices of the economic pie. Auletta doesn't address this issue, but his book makes you wonder what the answer is.
The Deal of the Century: The Breakup of AT&T, by Steve Coll (Atheneum, 1986). Former INC. writer Coll chronicles the drama behind the Justice Department's historic antitrust case against Ma Bell. He doesn't dwell much on the private lives of the participants; he just gives the play-by-play. But it's an engrossing contest, particularly because the outcome was constantly in doubt. In 1981, virtually every member of the new Reagan cabinet wanted to drop Justice's suit. But when attorney general William French Smith abstained from the case (for conflict-of-interest reasons), the decision fell to the new head of antitrust, one William Baxter. And Baxter was determined to pursue the case. For political reasons, no one else in the Administration could easily countermand him.
By Coll's account the eventual breakup of the phone company was almost an accident, the result of one Administration's grudging decisions and the predilections of Judge Harold H. Greene, in whose courtroom the case happened to land. To my mind, though, a breakup of AT&T was almost inevitable: once microwaves began replacing wires, long-distance calls were no longer a natural monopoly. Coll is aware of the economic and scientific backdrop of the case, but he doesn't spend much time examining it. That's the only weakness in an otherwise engaging story.
The Fanciest Dive, by Christopher M. Byron (NAL Penguin Inc., paperback, 1986). Remember TV-Cable Week? Maybe you never saw an issue -- not many people did. Time Inc. announced it would sink $100 million into the new magazine, so convinced were its executives that the publication would fly. Hadn't Henry R. Luce supported Sports Illustrated for years, until it finally turned fabulously profitable? Right. This time Time's resolve lasted 25 issues. Money goes faster these days: the company wrote off more than $47 million on its brief unhappy fling. Byron, assigned to the magazine as senior editor, tells the whole tawdry tale.
It's enough to sour you on any huge corporation's chances in an entrepreneurial marketplace. From Time's perspective, TV-Cable Week was the perfect opportunity to marry the company's expertise in magazines with its enormous investment in cable television. Blinded by this dazzling vision, corporate bigwigs completely ignored the project's realworld failings. Cable operators, on whom the magazine was to depend for its distribution, greeted it with a yawn. The computer system, critically important for compiling the endless array of TV listings, never worked right. The market penetration required for profitability was higher than any magazine had ever achieved. And still Time blundered on. Once the brass had bought the concept, who would be foolish enough to say it would never work?
The Real Coke, The Real Story, by Thomas Oliver (Random House Inc., 1986). To Coke fans, Coca-Cola Co.'s 1985 decision to change its formula was inexplicable, and the outcry it generated was no more than the company deserved. Oliver's book convincingly explains the logic.
Coca-Cola's nightmare, for years, was that damn "Pepsi Challenge," the blind taste tests in which consumes favored Pepsi Cola. Coke out-advertised, out-distributed, and out-promoted its rival, but Pepsi's market share kept growing. If the trend continued, Coke would soon be Number Two -- unthinkable to the men in Atlanta. Then, serendipitously, they discovered New Coke, a formula developed as part of the company's research efforts. In blind taste tests it beat Pepsi handily -- over and over again.
Wouldn't you have been tempted? Unlike Time Inc., Coca-Cola made a reasonable business judgment, tested it thoroughly, and executed it carefully -- exactly what smart executives are supposed to do. And still the whole thing blew up in their faces. The lesson -- hell hath no fury like a customer scorned -- may be worth remembering. But it's painful to imagine being on the receiving end.
Funny Money, by Mark Singer (Laurel Books [Dell], 1986). "There was a point in the life of the Penn Square Bank," writes Singer, "at which it became, in effect, two banks: the dull-sweet little shopping center bank and the ambitious oil-and-gas merchant bank that [chairman Bill (Beep) Jennings] grafted onto it, like a Formula One racing engine on a roller state." Singer, a staffer for The New Yorker and a native Sooner, accomplishes what few other writers on banking have done: his first-person observations of the players and their shenanigans are readable, memorable, and downright funny.
His work is also one of the best ever produced on the sociology -- some might say the sociopathology -- of banking's darker side. Fed by the ambitions of people like Jennings and wildcat developer Robert Hefner III, Penn Square packaged and sold enough tissue-paper debt to threaten the solvency of giants like Continental Illinois National Bank & Trust Co. and by extension the entire dmestic banking system. And what's to stop the same thing from happening somewhere else? According to Singer, not much.