There's no B.S. like H.B.S. -- Cambridge Maxim.
Milking sacred cows has long been a profitable pastime. One of the latest examples is "The Official MBA Handbook or How to Succeed in Business Without a Harvard MBA," written by Jim Fisk and Robert Barron, class of 1982.
Published in July, the book is already in its seventh printing and has reached third place on the Washington Post's trade paperback best seller list.
Harvard Business School, the ne plus ultra in financial education, the source of the case method, learned dicta, and future captains of industry. Yet not even a sacred cow is free of flies, as this benign spoof makes clear.
To illustrate course material on corporate strategy, for example, the book analyzes the Corleone Family Group and recommends that Escort Services of New York, its oldest division, be divested because "growing free competition" is causing a "deep decline in capacity utilization." On the other hand, it is recommended that the Corleone Credit and Collection Corp. "continue current aggressive methods of receivables management, as rapid foreclosure of overdue loans by this division has often led in the past to the acquisition of new businesses by the Corleone Family Group'"
The tongue-in-cheek approach extends beyond the classroom to the real world in a parody of "how to succeed" books: how to change your signature or attache case to fit your climb up the corporate ladder; how to weave buzzwords like "synergy" into your conversation, or how to expand your resume outrageously so that running bets as a country club caddy becomes "providing professional assistance and financial consulting services to members."
The bottom line? Spend $4.95 for the handbook and save $25,000, the cost of two years of business school.
There were over 50,000 Masters of Business Administration degrees awarded this year. About four times that number have elected the $4.95 fast track thus far, improving the authors' cash flow by $60,000.
"We never expected to do this well," Fisk and Barron said in an interview, squeezed between television appearances and magazine photo sessions. What was planned as a two-week promotional tour has expanded into 10. Offers to speak and license merchandise have begun to come in. Bloomingdale's is planning a major MBA promotion in all its stores next Christmas. Fisk and Barron are now the 82 Corporation.
On campus the authors were known as John Freund and David Porter. They chose the pseudonyms Jim Fisk for a 19th century gold speculator and Robert Barron for robber baron because they are big fans of Adam Smith, a.k.a. George J. W. Goodman, author of "Paper Money" and other witty tomes on business and finance. They also thought it was a good idea to "keep our frivolous business careers separate from our serious ones." Both are due to join old-line investment banking houses here this month. "I didn't want to be in the middle of an important presentation in Dallas and have some guy say, 'Oh, aren't you the kid that wrote the MBA Handbook?'" said Porter.
Now both 28, Freund, from New York, and Porter, a Bath, Me., native, got their B.A.s from Harvard in 1975. Freund received an M.D. from Harvard and Porter an M.S. in accounting from Northeastern before they were reunited at H.B.S. Between studies -- Freund managed to graduate in the top 5 percent of his class -- the pair began their extracurricular collaboration. A Harvard poster and another entitled "Bedtime for Brezhnev" won them the B-school's 1981 Entrepreneur of the Year award plus a $40 stipend.
But door-to-door sales of the posters provided enough money to pay their second year tuition and to get them an entree to the publisher Simon Schuster. The authors said that editor Jack Artenstein told them, "We like your sense of humor, but can you kids write?" The authors recalled, "Without missing too many beats, we said 'Sure#' At business school they teach you to say you can do anything even if you don't know anything about it."
The publishers wanted a clone of "The Preppy Handbook," which has sold 1.2 million copies and made author Lisa Birnbach a demi-millionaire, whereas Fisk and Barron wanted to write more about Harvard. The resulting compromise -- drawn in part from a college humor column and written with some help from classmates -- took about six months to write and another six to polish.
What kind of reception did it get on campus? How did faculty and peers react to this parody of their labors? After all, one section deals with "strategic misrepresentation," a euphemism for lying in negotiations that was once the subject of a course. A few years ago the revelation that Harvard Business School students were taught to "Lie" caused a lot of red faces in Cambridge.
Freund recounted that he gave a signed copy to H.B.S. Dean John H. McArthur at a dinner for honor students the night before graduation. As he filed by next day to get his diploma, the dean whispered, "You kept me up until 3 in the morning reading your stupid book; I loved it."
"Bull aside, we like to think it reflects very positively on the school and the experience," Freund said. The cow is milked, not slaughtered.
Despite their respect for the Harvard MBA, Porter acknowledged that "the value of an MBA is not always applicable. Unfortunately a lot of employers tend to hire and promote on a very discriminatory basis, just because a person has an MBA." Both said B-schools are extremely aware of and responding well to the current criticism leveled against MBAs for being short-term optimizers.
Harvard MBAs traditionally have earned the highest starting salaries. For the 17 percent of this year's class who have elected to become investment bankers, compensation ranges from $20,000 to $85,800, with a median of $39,900. Would their summer success as Fisk and Barron frustrate Freund and Porter, the investment bankers? Not likely, they responded, because they are looking forward to the entrepreneurial opportunities in their chosen profession. Would their smart-aleck antics offend prospective employers?" In a weird way it might help because nothing succeeds like success," said Freund.
Not only is the book good business, it has also provided good business experience for these "defrocked professionals," as they call themselves. Freund spent most of the past decade reading rather than writing books. While in medical school, he negotiated a few small-scale deals and found business more to his liking than medicine. His only job consisted of a brief stint with a pharmaceutical company before going to B-school.
Porter labored as a CPA in Boston auditing books of banks, municipalities, shoe factories and power companies. "That's where I learned to survive Muzak and talk a good sports game," said Porter, who is responsible for most of the book's humor. Freund's contribution was organization and negotiation.
Working on the book together gave them a chance to use "everything we ever learned in school." The authors found themselves doing layout, advertising and promotion, and seriously engaging in organizational behavior -- "the most important course we took" -- which is also humorously treated in the book.
"This summer we sat in the middle of a big corporation launching a product," said Freund and Porter. "Only we were the product."