Friday, December 31, 2010

Giants of Enterprise: My favorite read of 2010

It has been almost a year since I first read Richard Tedlow’s “Giants of Enterprise” and I still haven’t got over the hangover. Several times I revisited the book for some specific incident or information like to check George Eastman’s early experiments and I ended up spending the next half an hour reading much more. It is a kind of stuff I had never read before. The book opened a door of a totally new discipline for me – that of “business history”.

What is “Giants of Enterprise” about? The book contains biographies of seven innovators who built large enterprises in America from railroads to microprocessors: Andrew Carnegie (Steel), George Eastman (Kodak), Henry Ford, Thomas Watson Sr (IBM), Charles Revson (Revlon), Sam Walton (WalMart), Robert Noyce (Intel). In my opinion to say that the book is a bunch of biographies doesn’t do justice to it.

Here are three things that I find unique about this book:

· Role of influencers: For each of the innovators, Tedlow identifies one or two key influencers in their life and shows how a few individuals influence formative minds. If your boss fires you, chances are high you will hate him. And if you don’t, it is almost certain you won’t continue to adore him. Well, even after John Patterson fired Thomas Watson Sr. from National Cash Register, Watson continued to adore his ex-boss. Watson’s son wrote, “Oddly, dad never complained of this treatment and revered Mr. Patterson until the day he died.” Watson told his son one day, “Nearly everything I know about building a business comes from Mr. Patterson”. As Tedlow writes – “Both men dominated their organizations. Both were big spenders on themselves and on the others. Both demanded, explicitly or implicitly, complete allegiance to their views. Both were, in a sense, totalitarians.” Tedlow shows how Tom Scott played a similar role for Andrew Carnegie.

· Psychology of turning points: One of the specialties of Tedlow is to identify one or two key turning points in one’s life and analyze them psychologically. For example, one such point Tedlow presents is the day Henry Ford announced on January 5, 1914, “The smallest amount to be received by a man 22 years old and upwards will $5 per day…” According to Tedlow, this was the point where Ford’s modesty became a thing of the past. He developed an insatiable appetite for headlines. To borrow Warren Buffett’s terminology, Henry Ford forgot about his “circle of competence”. And Tedlow concludes that from this point onwards it was all downhill for Ford. You may or may not agree with Tedlow. But I enjoyed his analysis.

· Anatomy of innovation: If a general reading about an innovation, say through wikipedia, can be compared to watching a dressed up man, then reading this book is like seeing the man in an operating theatre and a surgeon showing you the details from inside. Not everybody may like it. But for me, it is a like having a “flight simulator” to play with. If you want to know exactly at what point Eastman might have got curious about photography or how much money was he already making from his photography business before he quit his banking job or when did he realize that patents are not enough and he needed to create a brand (like Kodak) you can find it in the book with all the gory details.

“Chance favors prepared mind” is my favorite law of innovation. I found this book to be the best so far that gives a glimpse of what “chance”, “a prepared mind” and “favors” mean. Tedlow shows again and again that “success” is like any other addiction. One doesn’t know where to stop.

Personally “History” had lost to “Science” as a cool subject by a wide margin when I was in school. After reading Tedlow, it rekindled my interest in history. Thanks to Tedlow I got an opportunity to appreciate the worlds of Gita Piramal (Business Legends), Ramchandra Guha (India after Gandhi) and many more.

An article I wrote based on a story from this book:

Kodak: story of how George Eastman resolved the patent paradox

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