THE BIG STORE Inside the Crisis and Revolution at Sears By Donald R. Katz Viking. 604 pp. $22.95
DONALD KATZ's massive, elegantly-written chronicle of the executive turmoil at Sears Roebuck during the years 1977-1983 is one of the better recent, large-scale explorations of American business at a time of crisis. Sears, of course, was the commercial paradigm of the "American Century": vast, populous, able to bend its sphere of influence to its will, to get its price for its goods as it pleased, a veritable hegemon.
By 1977, however, when Edward R. Telling was annointed chief executive officer and took up residence on the 68th floor of "the Tower," the looming Chicago skyscraper that one of his more egotistical predecessors had caused to be erected, Sears was entering a period of confusion and decline. The company was operating in a world in which its traditional methods no longer worked, a world that it demographically no longer understood, a world it would attempt to reconquer by a series of international organizational and pricing maneuvers that only made matters worse.
The problems within Sears could be summarized as a conflict, feudal in aspect and conduct, between "The Tower" -- home to the company's executive, administrative and purchasing substructures -- and "The Field," the selling network of stores, managers and employes who dealt with a consumer base at one time so ubiquitous in the nation's statistical life as to daunt the imagination.
Katz has chosen to tell his story essentially from the executive suite, focusing on the individuals who by turns entered and withdrew from this extraordinary quadrille, now leading, now following. They make up an interesting, varied cast: Telling, reclusive, moving almost by indirection; his chosen successor as chief merchant: Ed Brennan, a storekeeper to his toes faced with changing the culture of an organization substantially larger than General Motors; Joe Moran, Telling's picked ideologist, in many ways the most fascinating, conflicted character in the book. Along with these is a constantly reshuffled cast of Old Boys, Young Turks, consultants and opportunists, insiders and outsiders.
A review of this length cannot do justice to a chronicle related with Katz's scrupulous fullness. Suffice it to say that thanks to a combination of serendipity, foresight, grit, luck, planning, conflict and human expenditure of every sort, Sears is doing better when the book ends. To be sure, it stands nowhere as close to the center of our experience as it did during its glory years, but none of the megaliths of that age do, not even IBM. Still, it has survived, thanks to a concert of decisions, not always carefully thought through, sometimes scarcely intentional, that effectively turned the company inside out, reordered its priorities and hierachy, swept it into new businesses (investment banking, real estate) that even now, five years after Katz ends his tale, are only beginning to be understood and exploited. It relearned its traditional markets and opened up new ones, and its sheer size and momentum kept it going, even during the "Great Sell-off of 1977," when in desperation the company's managers resorted to the suicidal remedy of trying to compete on price alone.
FOR WHAT it does best, the psychological exploration and narrative recital of a complex and extended executive-suite drama, Katz's book bears favorable comparison with such other Gibbonian chronicles of American business decline and struggle as David Halberstam's The Reckoning and Richard Kluger's The Paper, even though The Big Store's subject is neither as romantic as the latter nor as apocalyptic as the former. If I have a quarrel with the book, it is that Katz seems to me to be too much the prisoner of the access he was given by Telling and others. A story like this needs to be looked at from the outside to be completely understood, to be examined from beyond the homogeneous circle, no matter how vast, of Searsmen. Great retailing/merchandising sagas are developed at the point of sale, by building the loyalty of clerks and customers, and at the point of supply. In my opinion, neither of these constituencies is adequately heard from, which deprives the book of a perspective that, if nothing else, might freshen the chronicle of comings and going at the Tower, which occasionally and inevitably have a certain longeur.
This is as whole a book as we are likely to get about individuals in control of an important business institution caught in the vise of past and present, at a moment when history and the nation's commercial destiny appear to have shifted on its axis, a period that requires and repays careful study. For this, Katz's well-written, nicely-produced volume (although it is Donald "Marron" of PaineWebber, not "Marin") will prove immensely valuable.
Michael M. Thomas writes frequently about business subjects. His novels include "Green Monday," "Someone Else's Money" and "The Ropespinner Conspiracy."