Here is a book about business. It doesn't have much of a theme, and it doesn't have much of a point of view. It is, however, good entertainment for people who never expected they'd want to read anything about business for entertainment alone.
The authors, Paul Solman and Thomas Friedman, were once editors of The Real Paper, a Boston alternative weekly (now defunct), and are currently collaborators on a PBS series about business called "Enterprise." They write in a breezy, almost ingenuous style that is always accessible but occasionally overdone: "If there is a myth about business more deeply held than any other, it is that corporate competition is really a sham. Or, put another way, the corporations are in cahoots."
Some chapters are strangely elliptical--important names and numbers are left out. And the authors have a strong bias for Boston, as if Detroit or Silicon Valley never existed (or Simon and Schuster couldn't spare the travel budget).
Still, at a time when most books about business are straining to prove a point--trying, for example, to twist the Japanese experience so it becomes a model for our own--it's refreshing to read a book simply filled with great tales and unlikely heroes.
Consider, for example, Wilson Harrell, man with a cleaning spray.
The authors recount how, in the early '60s, Harrell bought a small company that made a spray called Formula 409. With some sharp maneuvering, he managed to outwit Procter & Gamble, "the Goliath of home products, the company all its competitors fear."
When P&G tested its own spray, called Cinch, in Denver, Harrell pulled Formula 409 off the shelves so that the P&G test would show Cinch a tremendous success and give the big corporation a false sense of confidence. Then, just as P&G was launching Cinch at great cost nationwide, Harrell offered an attractive price promotion on very large sizes of Formula 409.
Customers bought so much of 409 that when Cinch hit the supermarkets, Formula 409 users were "out of the market"; they already had six months' worth of spray. "The only customers left were new users, and there weren't enough of them to justify Procter & Gamble's expenditures on Cinch. Within a year the impossible happened. Procter & Gamble withdrew its new spray-cleaning product from the shelves."
Then there is a story with no heroes, the tale of how Kennecott Copper's management decided to buy another firm, Carborundum, for far more than it was worth--in an effort to make Kennecott itself less attractive to a takeover bid by a third company.
The ultimate goal: to save the jobs and perquisites of Kennecott's management.
A Harvard Business School professor used the Kennecott case in class, asking students how a director on the Kennecott board should vote on the takeover.
The professor "was appalled," write Solomon and Friedman. "Not one of the 80 students supported the position that a director should insist on a course of action that maximized return--and thus reject the company's seemingly profligate bid for Carborundum." The professor, Robert Glauber, asked the students, "But then why do people sit on boards of directors?"
"For the business contacts, agreed the students . . . . Afterward, Glauber was genuinely upset."
Other stories in the book:
* The demise of The Real Paper, an "anti-business business" that tried a nonhierarchical sort of capitalism but didn't make it.
* The frustrating career of Henry Kloss, founder of several home electronics firms, including KLH and Advent, who was repeatedly unable to interest big American investors in his ideas and finally had to turn to foreigners: "The cautiousness of American business may once again have paved the way for Japanese business."
* The short, happy career of the Reynolds Bombshell ball point pen, which earned its inventor $1,558,608 (after taxes) on a $26,000 investment in six months in 1945.
There's very little to tie the nine chapters together, except perhaps a concern with methods of competition. But the stories are so much fun to read and the book rushes by so quickly that you barely notice that the authors have no big point to make. And the stories themselves are so delicious that, in the end, you don't care.