Business Book Review: Great Minds of Business

“Take the measure of the people at the top of a business and you will get a clearer sense of that company’s prospects than from its balance sheet, profitability, cash flow, market share, and market capitalization.  The people matter most, and accounting cannot quantify their value.  Similarly, the drama of business is in not in the numbers or in the recitation of dry fact.  It lies in the people who made and make it happen.”

From the second paragraph of the Forward, “Great Minds of Business” advances its thesis openly and boldly.  What follows are chapters composed from extensive interviews with five of the most successful business people of the 1990’s.  In their own words they recall how their businesses started; setbacks and crisis along the way; and each person’s view of larger issues of business, and life.

Instead of describing or critiquing this book, I’ll quote short sections.  You can decide whether you’d find this book worth your while.  But I’ll bet you will.

From Andy Grove, chairman emeritus and co-founder of Intel Corporation:

“Andrew Grove, president and chief executive officer of Intel Corporation, is the quintessential American success story. Born in Budapest, Hungary, he left his homeland when he was just 20 years old.  The was 1956 and the Communist threat was becoming a dark reality across Eastern Europe.  Grove emigrated to the United States of America penniless, knowing no English.

Q:  Even though this (the memory chip) was what had brought Intel to the heights of success and profitability, indeed what had made intel a brand name in chips?

A: That’s right. But by the time I’m describing (the mid 1980’s) the business had turned sour for us.  Even so, it was very difficult for us to contemplate as a rational option that we would get out of that business, precisely because we had created that business in the first place.  But when a problem is articulated in the form ‘what would somebody else do?”, it was a lot easier to come with that option than when we were merely asking what we should do about the problem…. I often use that mental model in a lesser situation, asking what would somebody without the emotional ties to the problem do?  It doesn’t always work – it’s like a mental gimmick with which you prepare yourself to face something difficult.”

From Pleasant Rowland, founder and president, Pleasant Company.

“Rowland’s story begins at Christmastime in 1983.  She was looking for some special gifts to give her nieces, dolls specifically.  ‘That was the year that Cabbage Patch hit the market with such a phenomenon.  And all my choices that year for Christmas presents were Cabbage Patch dolls and Barbie… Rowland thought to herself ‘Can I be the only woman looking for dolls this Christmas and feeling disappointed in my options?’

Q: In addition to the dolls, you publish American Girl magazine – which has a circulation of 700,000.  And you also have the American Girl Library and the American Girl Collection books, which have sold 36 million copies.  You have sold over 3 million dolls.  Your annual revenues exceed $250 million. What have you done differently in marketing your products, the dolls, the books, everything?

A:  First of all, I don’t think I’m in the doll business or the book business or the direct mail business.  I’m in the little girl business.  And everything that can make this fragile time of a girl’s childhood – between the ages of seven and twelve – better, is something that that I think we have a responsibility to do under the purview of this company’s mission.  … I was up against the giants of Mattel and Hasbro and the major toy companies of America…. As it turned out, those obstacles were all great blessings in disguise….I felt comfortable in the (mail order sales) catalog medium…  I wrote all the copy for the original catalog, and did for a long, long time.  Talking directly to my audience has been very important”

Peter Lynch (Fidelity Investments), Paul Volcker (Federal Reserve) and Fred Smith (Federal Express) are also profiled with their different perspectives on investing, the role of the Federal Government, and big ideas in business.

By the time you’ve finished reading, your head may be filled with a  welter of ideas… and that may be the fundamental message.  There are many ways to do business, make money…. and do a power of good along the way.

Read on.

Morgenson, Gretchen, Forbes’ Great Minds of Business; Companion to the Public Television Series, 1997, John Wiley and Sons, New York.  ISBN 0-471-19652-5




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