Unlike almost everyone else writing about business these days, John Brooks sees it as a source of drama and romance, where money and careers are put at risk for noble purposes or sordid ones -- or just for sport. Taking chances, or, as Brooks likes to put it, "adventure" (as in the financial terms "joint venture" and "venture capital"), is what his new book is all about. It's a collection of 11 articles he wrote for The New Yorker and one -- about the Amsterdam stock exchange -- that he didn't.
Brooks finds adventure in unlikely places. Take the matter of Standard Oil of New Jersey's 1972 decision to change its trademark from Esso to Exxon. While most observers found the change, which cost the company around $100 million, an extravagance, to Brooks it was daring and charming (the charm comes through in the chapter's title: "It Will Grow on You"). After a computer had spat out 10,000 names and "the piquant and spiky Exxon" was chosen, Jersey Standard's directors faced a hard choice. As Brooks puts it: "Whether to take arms against a sea of troubles by abandoning and established trademark and company name of inestimable value or to play it safe and muddle along with the status quo." No Hamlet, Exxon.
Mostly, though, Brooks writes about people, painting vivid pictures of adventurers at work:
Robert Young, who won control of the New York Central Railroad in 1954 in the most celebrated proxy fight in corporate history. Young, already a rich man, explained why he started the exhausting battle: "You know, I don't have to do all this. I enjoy it, or I wouldn't do it. I'm like the fellow playing golf. It's a hot day and he's in a sand trap and he's muffed about three shots, and suddenly he says to himself, 'Damn it, I don't have to play this game.' But he goes on playing it anyhow."
Young won the proxy fight, but the Central ran into hard times. On January 25, 1958, four days after the railroad was forced to omit a dividend to stockholders, Young, writes Brooks, "went to the billiard room of his mansion in Palm Beach and killed himself with a twenty-gauge shotgun."
Saul Steinberg, who, in 1969, at the age of 29, tried and failed to take over venerable Chemical Bank of New York with his little eight-year-old firm, Leasco Data Processing, which was one-twentieth Chemical's size. In the end, after Chemical had called on old-line Wall Street to help fight off Leasco, Steinberg summed up his emotional reaction when he said, immediately after his surrender, 'I always knew there was an Establishment -- I just used to think I was part of it.'"
Brooks writes that, in the Steinberg story, "enough of the famous Aristotelian elements of tragedy were there, along with certain elements of farce, to show that Wall Street could still fill its old role of stage and proscenium for interesting and moving human drama; not just like, but something rather larger than life."
The centerpiece of "The Games Players" is a tale that takes place not on Wall Street but in Spain, Belgium, Holland and on the North African coast. Still, it qualifies as "something larger than life." It is the story of Juan March (1880-1962), a tobacco smuggler, shipper and financier, a man described by Brooks as a "Spanish privateer." March managed to seize, by what Brooks calls "startling and unprecedented means," a profitable power company called Barcelona Traction -- a $150 million coup. It is a brilliant, byzantine tale of politics, legal maneuvering and high finance. And at the heart of it, another adventurer. Brooks quotes the Spanish finance minister, Jaime Carner, speaking to the national parliament about March in 1932:
"'March is neither friend nor enemy of anyone; March is March . . . this is a man of the Middle Ages, with modern means and instruments. March is one of those men who, centuries ago, cruised the Mediterranean in search of their destiny, seeking to realize their will, who considered as enemies only those who crimped or attempted to halt the course of that will . . . This is a man possessed.'"
The story of March, which consumes a third of the book, in not the sort that I usually get involved in. But Brooks weaves the thread with such dexterity that you can't help admiring the tapestry.
The chapter about the Amsterdam Stock Exchange is a little flat, and Brooks seems to have as much trouble as other writers in trying to explain what he calls "the new international monetary game" in a chapter entitled "Starting Over." He also has the irritating habit of opening his chapters with dates: "On January 3, 1955," etc. -- Six of the 12 chapters begin that way.
Still, "The Games Players" is a superb book, written with grace and excitement, and filled with the kind of business writing that readers who care little for business -- but who care a lot for adventure -- will enjoy.