“Historically, the raisin industry has been one of the most violent in the United States,” writes David Brown in The Art of Business Wars.
The bloody history of organized raisin crime is among the many corners of twentieth century US business history recounted in this new book, from the host of the popular “Business Wars” podcast and due out next week.
Brown contends that all business is battle. “Regardless of how you make your profits, there’s somebody out there willing to do the same thing faster or cheaper or better than you can,” he writes. “How are you going to beat them?” (p. ix.) Brown quotes Sun Tzu’s The Art of War throughout the book, linking sayings from it—like ”Let your great object be victory, not lengthy campaigns”—to examples of business strategy. (Most of which are not literal battles, unlike the fights to enforce market collusion among California raisin producers.)
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But the war metaphor and the related lessons are in many ways the least interesting parts of the book, which sparkles with tales of American business adventure, relayed by a skilled storyteller. Brown dismisses the notion that they’re case studies, instead thinking of them as epic hero narratives.
Among the 27 stories that Brown presents:
- The creation of Southwest Airlines. Cofounder Herb Kelleher fought off 31 lawsuits by established rivals over three years before the upstart Texas airline could get off the ground, and cried when it completed its first flight. Southwest then went on to become “the industry’s most ferocious competitor.”
- The birth of the Barbie doll. Ruth Handler couldn’t convince Mattel executives to make a doll of a grown-up woman for girls to play with until she brought back dolls of a risque comic strip character she spotted during a family vacation in Switzerland. Handler’s success was rooted in advertising Barbies and other toys directly to kids via television.
- The success of Bumble. After being unfairly pushed out of Tinder, Whitney Wolfe founded a rival dating app that introduced rules to create a safer, friendlier environment for users of all genders.
- The story of Biocon. Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw founded this Indian biotech firm, combating bias against women executives along the way. She succeeded in part by selling drugs for very low prices, an approach Western pharma giants had shunned.
- The rise of General Motors’ Mary Barra. Having gotten her start inspecting hoods and fenders on new Pontiacs, Barra went on to be named CEO of the automaker. Along the way she brought focus to improving quality and safety, introducing the slogans “No more crappy cars” and “If you’re worried, I’m worried.” Barra’s battle is to fight off Tesla and other rivals and reorient the company toward an electric-vehicle future.
- The triumph of Beats by Dre over Monster Cable. Beats by Dre savvily out-negotiated the company that designed and manufactured its headphones, enabling it to take full control of the product and revenues by triggering a change of control clause that Monster Cable hadn’t focused on.
What are the takeaways Brown offers for people interested in business today?
- Intuition is a key element of success. “In an unfamiliar, unpredictable environment, a leader who trusts their intuition enough to act decisively in the absence of clear answers is at a distinct advantage,” Brown writes.
- It’s important to learn and recover from failure. “These leaders had many more downs than ups,” says Brown.
- Successful leaders know their own business inside and out. Olive Ann Beech, the CEO of Beech Aircraft, memorized the parts of airplanes, even if she didn’t know how to fly.
- Simple determination carries the day. Witness Kelleher’s perseverance in weathering the legal attacks to start Southwest.
- No victory is ever final. “When the world changes, but the business doesn’t, the war is over,” writes Brown. IBM’s devotion to punch cards that were responsible for its business success served it poorly in the face of upstarts using magnetic tape to store data.
- Experiment endlessly. Earl Tupper tinkered with various approaches to plastic manufacturing until discovering the approach that led to Tupperware. William Wigley began selling soap then tried baking powder before settling on chewing gum.
To be sure…
- The war metaphor feels stretched and superfluous in numerous places, and the idea of all business endeavors representing a zero-sum competition against a rival seems questionable. Brown focuses on the advances born from a crush-all-foes battle philosophy, but it also can be responsible for the toxic effects of capitalism as well.
- The businesses profiled skew toward consumer brands and establishment historical figures. Of the 27 business stories, roughly eight have female protagonists. And by my count only three have protagonists who are people of color, with just one of them American. The world is ready for a US business history book that makes the extra effort to go beyond the white canon.
- The stories are well told, but many will already be familiar to anyone who has studied American business history, or read Fortune, Businessweek, and The Wall Street Journal during the final decades of the 20th century.
Memorable anecdotes and facts:
- Prior to getting into the automotive business, Henry Ford was chief engineer for Thomas Edison’s Edison Illuminating Company.
- Ford’s Model T car cost less than today’s equivalent of $4,000.
- Mattel was the first company to broadcast TV ads intended for kids, marketing its Burp Gun on “The Mickey Mouse Club.”
- Handel, Barbie’s creator, was convicted on federal conspiracy charges for using illegal accounting practices to prop up Mattel’s share price.
- Beech held one-on-one meetings with managers at the company because she didn’t want to put up with male executives talking over her in group meetings.
- The original name of Spanish clothing retailer Zara was Zorba (from the film “Zorba the Greek”) but a local bar had that same name so they rearranged letters for the signage to come up with Zara.
- Wrigley in 1915 mailed four sticks of spearmint gum to every household in the phone book, representing over 1.5 million packages.
- Nintendo originally created the mega-hit Donkey Kong videogame to install it in unused arcade cabinets designed for a game called Radar Scope, which had flopped in the US.
- “Serial entrepreneurs learn to see resistance as a sign of encouragement: the greater the fight against an idea, the greater its potential.” (p. 21)
- “Pillaging an existing customer base with a superior offering is much easier than winning people over to a brand-new product or service.” (p. 28)
- “When a business’s formula really works, few strategies offer the same rewards as the franchise model.” (p. 84)
- “Taking two positions is equivalent to taking none.” (p. 97)
- “I like to have people around me who find ways to do things, not tell me why they can’t be done.” —Beech (p. 119)
- “I have become impatient. I want to win. Not get by. Not hold on. Not be competitive. But win.” —Barra (p. 165)
- “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” —Edison (p. 313)
Much of the material it covers will likely be familiar, but the bottom line is that The Art of Business Wars is an entertaining book of great stories and characters from the annals of US business history in the modern era.
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