Midway through this chronicle of Xerox Corp.'s battles against U.S. and Japanese competitors in the copier business, there's a sparkling little industrial anecdote that could stand as an archetype of life in the corporate suite.
At a meeting of the company's highest muckety-mucks, a Xerox executive named Don Massaro drops a witty -- and accurate -- quip about Xerox Chairman David Kearns' lack of management experience. The assembled big shots laugh uproariously -- until they notice that Kearns, the butt of the joke, is not amused. Kearns sourly curses Massaro and threatens to fire him.
It would be fascinating to know what happened next. Did the chairman eventually develop a sense of humor, or did the the witty executive get the ax? But on this, as on many other points, the book leaves us hanging. The authors note, in a one-sentence aside, that Massaro "left the company" not long after this incident, but they don't report whether he left voluntarily or was forced out because of his joke at the chairman's expense.
I have no doubt that Jacobson and Hillkirk, a pair of journalists who covered Xerox for the firm's home-town newspaper, the Rochester Times-Union, know what really happened to Don Massaro. They clearly have acquired a prodigious store of knowledge about Xerox and the industry it founded. The resulting book is indeed, as they note in their preface, an "insider's view." But it is often so "inside" as to leave us outsiders simply bewildered.
The basic story here should be interesting -- at least to those readers who have not already drunk their fill at the copious fountain of U.S.-versus-Japan business books.
"From 1976 to 1982, Xerox's share of worldwide copier revenues dropped by half," the book says. But instead of caving in or demanding government trade protection, Xerox regrouped, fought back, and became "the first American company to regain market share against the Japanese." "Xerox: American Samurai" sets out to explain how Xerox did it.
This is an appealing topic, and the authors cover it comprehensively. But the book is less compelling than it might have been because it assumes deeper knowledge than the general reader is likely to have. As in the the case of Don Massaro's little joke, the authors often leave us wishing we knew more.
If you already know what "CRD pricing" is, or how a "recirculating document handler" works, or why a Xerox model 1090 is better than a Kodak model 250, or when liquid toner is preferable to powder, you will find this epic account of the xerography wars quite satisfying. For those of us who are less tuned in to photocopy intricacies, the interesting basic story keeps getting lost in the mire of sentences like " Xerox has begun to OEM some items, such as photoreceptors, to distributors who in turn sell them for replacement use on competitive machines."
The chapters on Japanese copy machine firms are written at a more basic level and are thus more accessible -- particularly the intriguing discussion of how Canon came up with the idea for the "personal copier" that Jack Klugman sells. But it's downright offensive for the authors to make fun of Japanese executives' pronunciation of English. Have they ever listened to an American trying to get by in Japanese?
The scattered portraits here of people like Chester Carlson, the inventor of xerography, David Kearns, the less than humorous chairman, and Paul Charlap, the genius behind the Xerox competitor Savin Corp., make good reading. But these segments crop up too rarely -- occasional islands in a formidable sea of technical and financial details.
"Xerox: American Samurai" would definitely be enjoyable for those who work at Xerox or one of its competitors. If you're not the type who knows what an "organic photoreceptor" is, though, you could probably do without a copy of this book.
The reviewer, Denver bureau chief of The Washington Post, is the author of "The Chip."