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Business adventures: Bill Gates’s favourite book
These classic reports about corporate life remain highly enjoyable even if Bill Gates’s encomium is a tad inflated, says John McLaren.
It’s amazing, the power of brand names. Not in this case the author’s, but that of the fan, Bill Gates, whose praise of this as the ‘best business book I have ever read’ is splashed all over the cover, and seems to be the sole reason why it has been republished and become a publishing sensation. I don’t doubt that Mr Gates’s enthusiasm is sincere, but could he have been a tad influenced by the fact that his copy was given to him by Warren Buffett? Would it have been the same if the donor had been another international financial titan, such as Ed Balls?
First published in 1969, Business Adventures is one of 56 books written by Brooks, who was also a prolific contributor to The New Yorker. I’ve taken a good look at punters’ comments, which seem to polarise neatly into ‘work of genius’ versus ‘boring and out of date’. Another line is to identify Brooks as the forerunner of Michael Lewis. That’s broadly fair, as they both write with loose-limbed fluency and share the gift of moulding arcane raw material into compelling narratives. But, for me, Brooks’s style is closer to that of Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Too Big to Fail, with its stunning high-definition, fly-on-the-wall perspective. I can’t offer any higher compliment.
The title Business Adventures is a double misnomer. Although some of the dozen episodes are about business proper, many are actually about economics or finance. And, since there are more disasters than triumphs, Misadventures would be nearer the mark. The anthology ranges across subjects as diverse as the US tax system, the stellar rise of Xerox, the anatomy of a Wall Street crash, the Ford Edsel and our very own 1967 ‘pound-in-your-pocket’ devaluation.
Brooks’s method is to approach the key players and download their recollections of events. Facts and reported views are generally left to speak for themselves, rather than being marshalled heavy-handedly towards theories or lessons to be learned.
The finest account is probably of the Edsel debacle, where he spoke to almost everyone directly involved (and that turns out to be less a styling fiasco and more a conventional story of wrong product/wrong time, complemented by a light dusting of crap quality). This standard is not quite matched when covering the doomed defence of sterling, where it appears that his only sources were in the US, so the version of what happened in London feels rather second-hand. (Maybe Harold Wilson didn’t return his calls.) But he does fill in a gap in my knowledge by explaining the origin of the word sterling – Saxon silver pennies were often inscribed with stars and known as ‘starlings’.
Brooks has a delicious turn of phrase: he describes the Edsel’s much-derided grille, incorporating a central horse-collar shape flanked by vast horizontal chrome shoulders as bringing to mind the image of ‘the chairwoman trying on the duchess’s necklace’. (Rather wonderfully, several reviewers, perhaps speed-reading, have misquoted this as ‘charwoman’.)
Coincidentally, he does have one other thing in common with Michael Lewis, whose recent Flash Boys recounts how superior speed, measured in millionths of seconds, in access to trading data gave certain shadowy institutions a decisive edge. In May 1962 the US stock market first crashed for no very obvious reason and then just as abruptly reversed the fall. The exchange’s antiquated system for reporting trades was overwhelmed by the volume, so there was a delay of up to two hours in announcing prices, and the resulting uncertainty contributed greatly to the blind frenzies of dumping and then repurchasing shares.
The author reserves his greatest relish for a chapter about price-fixing by General Electric, for which it was heavily punished by a Senate sub-committee. The nub of the issue was internal communications; GE not only incorporated the relevant anti-trust law into its internal policy, but regularly read out the text publicly to executives. The problem was the bosses habitually rounded off their reading with a wink, hinting that they expected their audience to flout it.
This is a terrific, thoroughly enjoyable read and it contains enough in the way of cautionary tales to offer some wisdom as well as entertainment. The best business book I’ve ever read? No, but it’s certainly good enough that, if Bill or Warren had personally popped it in the post, I might feel differently.