John Brooks’ bestseller, Business Adventures, is a reminder of the fact that the rules of the game never change
Business Adventures: Twelve Classic Tales from the World of Wall Street
WHEN THE cover of a book shouts “the best business book I’ve ever read”, attributed to Microsoft founder Bill Gates, there are no questions asked. And when one discovers that the book has spent weeks on The New York Times bestsellers’ list—after the collection of articles, first published in 1969, went out of print and before being ‘resurrected’ recently—all remaining doubts are laid to rest.
That said, John Brooks’ Business Adventures is indeed an entertaining and insightful look at corporate and financial life in America. Each story is an example of how an iconic company can be defined by a particular moment of fame or notoriety.
And it’s not too difficult to fathom why it remains a ‘bible’ for billionaires. The prose is fast-paced yet lucid (it’s no mean task to make 12 long articles read like 12 entertaining ‘adventures’); Brooks’ writing is laced with humour (in a piece about the $350-million Ford Motor Company disaster known as ‘Edsel’, the author describes the car’s elaborate grille as “the charwoman trying on the duchess’ necklace”); and as the thought-provoking book shows, the business lessons of each remain as fresh and relevant as ever (in the Indian context, Ford’s epic Edsel folly can be likened with Tata’s R1-lakh wonder Nano, and the situation stays more or less the same—the hype around the car was huge, but eventually it fizzled out).
Brooks doesn’t preach. So you don’t have words like ‘be lean’, ‘be tough’ or ‘be a leader’. Instead, what you have are plain essays as they first appeared in The New Yorker in the 1960s. Even the topics are eye-glazing. Brooks starts the collection with the market’s wild ride between May 28, 1962, and May 31, 1962, when the Dow Jones average of 30 leading industrials dropped more than at any other time since the great stock market crash of October 28, 1929, and its volume of trading was the seventh greatest in its history. We have experienced similar situations with ‘flash crashes’ recently. The people at that time, too, had a hard time figuring it out.
Then he goes on to talk about Ford’s ill-fated Edsel, named after the company president Henry Ford II’s father. Brooks provides pungent character portraits of Ford Motor Company executives who made wrong decisions about coming out with a new car and selling that concept to Americans (the production of the car was halted even before it completed its second year).
The focus then shifts to Xerox, an office tool that revolutionised the way humans communicate today—something so big that the name of the company has become the generic name for the product. Brooks also tells the story of the 1961 price-fixing scandal among 29 electric companies, particularly General Electric, where employees worked on their own to profit from their illegal actions. Brooks compares the situation with “a breakdown in intramural communication so drastic as to make the building of the Tower of Babel seem a triumph of organizational rapport”.
Brooks ends the book with the heroic efforts that were needed to rescue the British sterling pound from the brink of devaluation. In between, there are several other pithy tales from the world of business and finance, each a reminder of the fact that the rules for running a strong business and creating value haven’t changed, even 45 years later.
For votaries of economic history, this book will seem like a whiff of fresh air. After all, it’s not often that we get to spend enough time on the qualitative reasoning that goes into making good business decisions, rather than on the numbers in business. It’s a different story that the book, even in its rebirth, is still churning out the numbers.