The Best Business Books Of 1991

It was--shall I say it?--not the greatest year for business books. Not that there weren't plenty of them. The recent success of such titles as Barbarians at the Gate and Liar's Poker sustained publishers' enthusiasm for business topics. The good news for readers is that the trend to accessible, anecdotal business books remained strong. But many books were disappointing--even some of the year's best seemed in need of a strong editor. With increasing frequency, BUSINESS WEEK's reviewers complained of unnecessary detail and repetitiveness. Even in this frustrating year, however, 10 books stand out.

The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power, by energy consultant Daniel Yergin (Simon & Schuster), is perhaps the best history of oil ever written. Over the course of 877 pages, Yergin ponders the idea of oil as power--not just physical power, but also economic and hence political power. The book's best section is a gripping account of World War II as a struggle fought for, and with, oil. The analysis of the oil shocks of the 1970s and the glut of the 1980s is also well done. While The Prize tells more about its subject than you may ever want to know, it brings our knowledge of the 20th century--the Age of Oil--into sharper focus.

Like The Prize, Ken Auletta's Three Blind Mice: How the TV Networks Lost Their Way (Random House) tells its story in detail so plentiful it can be overwhelming. Starting in 1984, the book relates the takeovers of CBS, NBC, and ABC, which took place even as the three were being challenged by cable, VCRs, and the upstart Fox Broadcasting Co. It's a tour de force of reporting: Virtually everyone who mattered talked to Auletta, and he sat in on sales meetings, gatherings of network affiliates, and sessions in which Hollywood producers pitched series.

In particular, the chapter in which Laurence A. Tisch closes his grip on CBS is dynamite. The heart of the book, though, is what happened after the nets changed hands. To varying degrees, Auletta frames these takeovers as a struggle between the old guard, resistant to change and blind to the changes around them, and the new guard, bean-counters ignorant of the TV business and especially the news business.

Just out and still to be reviewed in these pages, The Great White Lie: How America's Hospitals Betray Our Trust and Endanger Our Lives, by Walt Bogdanich (Simon & Schuster), is a terrifying indictment of the profit motive run amok in the health care system. The book smashes the comforting icons of Marcus Welby and Doogie Howser, replacing them with a vision of hospitals run by ex-cons, untrained nurses in intensive-care units, and widespread medicare fraud by hospital administrators.

Bogdanich, a writer for The Wall Street Journal, marshals examples of malfeasance so extreme that at first they're hard to believe, but he balances them with analysis drawn from more than 15 years of reporting on the industry. His book helps explain why the U. S. health care bill is expected to balloon to some $1 trillion--nearly 15% of gross national product--by the year 2000.

The Patriarch: The Rise and Fall of the Bingham Dynasty, by Susan E. Tifft and Alex S. Jones (Summit), is the saga of the Binghams of Kentucky, who for decades ran a regional media empire headed by The Courier-Journal and The Louisville Times. In 1986, they sold out to Gannett Co., ostensibly because of squabbles among clan members and shareholders. This is the fourth book inspired by the dynasty's self-destruction--and by far the best.

The story of the Bingham companies serves as a history of the newspaper industry in this century: the transformation of papers from opinionated sheets into more objective reporting operations in the '20s and '30s, expansion into TV in the '40s and '50s, and the decline wrought by inflation and lost ad revenues in the '70s and '80s. The second half of the book, about the power struggles among the Bingham children, takes on a thriller's pace, climaxing with the decision to sell. This is a compelling account of what happens to a family company when family members don't trust each other.

Perhaps inevitably, two of the year's best business books are recountings of financial excess in the 1980s. Den of Thieves (Simon & Schuster) by James B. Stewart, front-page editor of The Wall Street Journal, seems likely to become the definitive account of the insider-trading scheme involving Dennis B. Levine, Ivan F. Boesky, and Michael R. Milken. It's not without flaws: Stewart, who apparently didn't interview Levine, Boesky, or Milken, treats those he did talk to -- particularly the prosecutors -- too sympathetically, and he tends to bury information at odds with his argument that Milken was the pivotal figure in "the greatest criminal conspiracy the financial world has ever known." Still, Thieves offers a wealth of fascinating minutiae, especially about the government's pressuring witnesses to give evidence against Milken. And it's packed with scenes of high drama.

Another fast-paced tale from the Decade of Greed is John Rothchild's Going for Broke: How Robert Campeau Bankrupted the Retail Industry, Jolted the Junk Bond Market, and Brought the Booming Eighties to a Crashing Halt (Simon & Schuster). It's an often comical account of how Campeau came more or less out of nowhere, took over two of the biggest department store chains in the U. S.--Allied Stores and Federated Department Stores--and drove them quickly into bankruptcy.

The story is almost incredible. Campeau, a self-made millionaire in Canadian real estate, had no retailing background and virtually no cash to put down. He seemed, moreover, vain, contradictory, and unpredictable--inclined to disappear at key moments. Still, investment bankers and lawyers fell over themselves to finance him and collect huge fees. They even let him borrow most of the $300 million in equity he had to put up for Allied. But for its devastating impact on the financial markets and the retailing industry, this would be a funny story.

Excess is the theme, too, of Graef S. Crystal's In Search of Excess: The Overcompensation of American Executives (Norton), a hard-hitting analysis of what's wrong with executive pay in America. For nearly 20 years, Crystal was a top compensation consultant, striding into boardrooms to justify big raises for chief executives. Then he became the leading critic of excessive pay.

In Excess, he takes on all the big corporate money-makers. Drawing readers through the exotica of a proxy statement like an ebullient safari guide, he reveals the tricks used to obscure how much chief executives stand to make. He concludes by suggesting reforms to make the game fair to all--shareholders, employees, and executives.

Thomas Geoghegan's Which Side Are You On? Trying to Be for Labor When It's Flat on Its Back (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) is a witty, often scathing meditation on the state of the U. S. labor movement. A lawyer who has worked with unions for 20 years--usually with dissidents or reform groups--Geoghegan has written a quirky, highly personal book. He skewers everyone, lambasting Reaganomics and corporate executives for the layoffs and concessions that weakened unionism in the 1980s even as he condemns autocratic labor bosses. Geoghegan sometimes lapses into gloomy sarcasm, but as he describes clients who lost pensions to unscrupulous companies or lost limbs in unsafe factories, his compassion wins you over.

For American executives approaching two massive, changing markets--the Soviet Union and China--the year's best books include two cautionary tales. In his amusing Bear Hunting with the Politburo: A Gritty First-Hand Account of Russia's Young Entrepreneurs--and Why Soviet-Style Capitalism Can't Work (Simon & Schuster), A. Craig Copetas writes that perestroika has made trade more, not less, risky. That's because the mossbacks of the old trade bureaucracy, though corrupt, operated by an unspoken set of rules. The new traders, just as corrupt, play by no rules at all.

Copetas, who worked in Moscow from 1987 to 1991 as a correspondent for Regardie's, focuses on Volodya Yakovlev, a Soviet entrepreneur with a knack for suckering Westerners. During perestroika's glittering early years, a parade of Americans fawned over Yakovlev. Nearly all got burned, most notably by Yakovlev's refusal to recognize that a contract is a contract. Copetas' relationship with his subject is troubling--he worked as an adviser for Yakovlev--but his bitter portrait of the new Soviet free-marketers contains valuable lessons.

In the same vein, Randall E. Stross's Bulls in the China Shop: And Other Sino-American Business Encounters (Pantheon) is an entertaining account of American business misadventures in China. Stross, a professor of international business at San Jose State University, describes the difficulties caused by cultural and political differences. As in Copetas' book, confusion over the significance of contracts is a key problem. And again we see U. S. executives so enthralled with a novel land that they suspend their critical faculties.

A tragic quality underlies the comic moments in Bulls. Despite misunderstandings, Stross notes, U. S. executives in China have had a profound political impact. And since 1989's Tiananmen Square massacre, the Chinese "most influenced by American people and ideas" have paid dearly--losing jobs, status, and in the case of political refugees, their homeland.

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