02/05/2012 - 11:17

Make it your business to read a good book

02/05/2012 - 11:17


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Looking for business inspiration? Here are a few books that offer more than just a great read.

Looking for business inspiration? Here are a few books that offer more than just a great read.

I HAVE belatedly got around to reading Moneyball as I retrospectively track back through author Michael Lewis’ work.

I first encountered his writing last year when I read his Vanity Fair article, ‘Beware of Greeks Bearing Bonds’. This is an amazing piece of work, which seeks to do more than simply discuss the economic issues relating to the GFC; it aims to learn about the cultural background that led the Greeks to where they are today.

As part of this work, Lewis wrote similar pieces about Ireland, Iceland and Germany – all of which have been thrown together recently in a book of essays entitled ‘Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World’.

Lewis has a gift for bringing the human and business worlds together in a way few others can. Moneyball has now become a film. While it was a great movie, the screen version doesn’t quite tell the story the way the book does, especially the nitty gritty in taking statistical analysis and applying it to the sport of baseball.

This kind of gift is rare, but not unique.

The guys behind Freakonomics – University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt and New York Times journalist Stephen Dubner – arguably did the same thing. In many ways, Moneyball is simply an extended version of a chapter in their original book or its sequel Superfreakonomics. Throughout these entertaining books the Freakonomics duo uses statistical analysis to attempt to explain why so many things about public policy or even popular culture have turned out the way they have.

While the Freakonomics’ viewpoint might have been the first to popularise the idea of using economic theory and methodology to explain the real world, a very good earlier example can be found in the work of leading management text author Jim Collins.

Collins’s Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies is a well-known result of a statistical analysis of leading listed US companies. By tracking back through the history of performance of companies in the US stock market, the author, aided by his students, found a consistent set of traits which tended to mark a company for long-term success.

The only trouble with that analysis was that, in the main, the companies identified had been created with those traits. In another book, Good to Great, which many business leaders tend to hold in higher regard, Collins returned to the data to find examples of where mediocre companies had become outperformers.

It is not only great information, it is well told.

All this got me thinking about the type of business books I find engaging. 

A few years ago I read Stick It Up Your Punter, the story of The Sun tabloid newspaper in London owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. The story also touched on the now defunct News Of The World, as it was a sister publication with a similar modus operandi.

Given the controversy surrounding News Corp, due initially to the activities of people at the News Of The World, I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest not just in the media but of any form of disruptive market change. 

Poles apart in so many ways, another great book that also highlights the revolution in an industry is the Judgement of Paris by George Taber. While this title is relatively obscure – and only came to my attention because Taber was a publisher of a newspaper in the US that is similar to WA Business News – it is a rare glimpse of how market forces can unleash massive change in an industry, wine in this instance, in a relatively short timespan.

The story begins with a blind wine tasting in Paris attended by Taber in the 1970s, when he was the Europe correspondent for Time magazine. When the US wines win, it reveals the beginning of the end of French domination of the sector and an awakening among consumers of products from the new world – including Australia – with new techniques and a total disregard for some of the rules that limited European producers.

Another intriguing lesson on disruptive technology is a biography on arguably Australia’s greatest military leader, Sir John Monash. While Roland Perry’s book Monash: The Outsider Who Won A War, offers inspiration, it is more than that for those looking for business lessons.

Sir John was an outsider because he was a part-time soldier (not a professional), Jewish and, in World War I, of both Australian (in an army led by the British) and with German ancestry (that of the enemy). Despite these ‘handicaps’, this entrepreneurial engineer ended up leading Australia’s best troops at a decisive stage in the war when they were also the Allies’ best soldiers.

His leadership was not about grandiose manoeuvres and military bravado; it involved clever strategy, cautious planning and the use of modern technology integrated with more traditional army methods.

Oddly enough, another military book offering similar lessons is The Phantom Major by Virginia Cowles.

This 1958 book, which I read recently, is about David Stirling and his creation of the Special Air Services in the Western Desert. It shows how someone with a different idea and the persistence to overcome traditionalists can prevail. 

This fellow was nothing more than an entrepreneur in military clothing – and even then it was a thin disguise.

Another pair of very different business books that I have enjoyed immensely deals with the darker side of industry – carrying within them their own set of lessons.

The best books that I have read about the Enron debacle in the US is 24 Days, written by Wall Street Journal reporters Rebecca Smith and John Emshwiller about how they uncovered the tangled web of lies and deceit to expose this criminal utility group.

This is an exciting tale, especially from a journalistic perspective, because the writers were consistently told they were wrong but kept following the facts and asking the questions.

Another story, which does nothing to promote journalism, is a book I read years ago called Trading Secrets. In it, author R Foster Winans recounts how he and his trading mates used the knowledge of his prominent stock market column for insider trading and market manipulation. 

Finally, anyone in business in WA ought to read Paul Barry’s standout book The Rise And Fall Of Alan Bond

This outstanding biography would help anyone who wasn’t around for the WA Inc era to understand why this state’s business leadership was treated like such a pariah for so long. Oddly enough it worked in our favour, while the rest of the nation took a business-as-usual approach, they failed to notice the revolution in good management that occurred here when the state’s entrepreneurial streak was harnessed by more ethical forces and put to good use.

• mark.pownall@wabn.com.au



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