The Best Business Books Of 1997

Bruised Apples and flying lemons. Obsessive technocrats and screwball millionaires. The biology of business and the mechanics of leadership. Such is the range of topics covered in BUSINESS WEEK's top 10 business books of the year.

Strong personalities feature in many of the titles. Consider Katharine Graham's Personal History (Knopf). "With a story that seems straight out of a 19th century novel," wrote reviewer Howard Gleckman, it is "full of the stuff we want to read about--money and power, sex and scandal, tragedy and courage."

The daughter of a brilliant but cold mother and a rich businessman who bought The Washington Post at a street-corner auction, Graham led a sheltered life. But when Philip L. Graham, Katharine's husband of 23 years and the publisher of the paper, killed himself, Katharine went to work. Over the years that followed, she oversaw the Post's emergence as custodian of a more confrontational style of journalism that included investigations of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate cases. And Graham was at the helm as the Post became a huge business success following its 1971 public offering. With its insider perspective, the book is "a fascinating tale of an extraordinary life," concluded Gleckman.

THE VALUJET SAGA. Another through-the-keyhole account is provided by Mary Schiavo and Sabra Chartrand, authors of Flying Blind, Flying Safe (Avon). As inspector general at the Transportation Dept., Schiavo won a reputation as a maverick for criticizing her fellow bureaucrats. A memoir of Schiavo's six years in office, Flying Blind is also "an incisive primer on what ails the aviation industry and the feds' regulation of it," declared reviewer Christina del Valle.

The author describes the 1996 Florida Everglades crash of ValuJet Flight 592--and regulators' subsequent rush to soft-pedal the catastrophe. Federal watchdogs, she felt, had been too eager to promote startup airlines and thus failed to enforce their own safety rules. "It's not my job to sell tickets on ValuJet," Schiavo announced. But it was far from the only case in which the "incompetent" FAA chose to side with the aviation industry rather than safeguard the public. Unnerving stuff.

Another personality with a powerful institutional impact was Frederick Winslow Taylor, the subject of Robert Kanigel's The One Best Way: Frederick Winslow Taylor and the Enigma of Efficiency (Viking). Taylor believed that there was a single recipe for every job, from shoveling coal to pouring steel--and he codified that approach in the school of thinking known as scientific management. It turned craft work into assembly line labor, often producing speedups, layoffs, and rules for every job.

Taylor was remarkable both for his ability to organize minute details and for his messianic zeal. He was then and remains now a controversial character: Was Taylor a slave driver or a liberator whose approach won workers higher pay? Kanigel says he was "a man of immense spirit, intelligence and tenacity, [who] managed to alienate, or at least irritate, almost everyone." Reviewer Robert J. Dowling found the book "a marvelously done biography."

SCREWY MOGUL. Also controversial was Colonel Robert R. McCormick, head of a media empire and publisher-editor of The Chicago Tribune from 1914 until his death in 1955. In The Colonel: The Life and Legend of Robert R. McCormick (Houghton Mifflin), Richard Norton Smith, author of several previous biographies, provides a balanced portrait of an intriguing if sometimes screwy mogul.

With its combination of interesting features, global news coverage, and wacky exploits, McCormick's Tribune won a mass readership. However, as Smith shows, the wackiness was hardly contrived, being an outgrowth of McCormick's strange personality. A self-proclaimed spokesman for the workaday heartland, his manner, accent, and attire were more suited to an English manor house weekend. Jingoistic and fascinated with war, he became an ardent isolationist. McCormick directed the paper to adopt a streamlined form of spelling, replacing island with "iland," for example. "The newspaper became a megaphone to amplify the publisher's caprices," says the author. By the time of his death, McCormick had outlived his times--but he had placed his stamp solidly upon American life.

Will today's tycoons make such a lasting imprint? Chances are good that Andrew S. Grove, CEO of the world's No.1 chipmaker, will not soon be forgotten. In Inside Intel: Andy Grove and the Rise of the World's Most Powerful Chip Company (Dutton), author Tim Jackson argues that the company mirrors Grove's mercurial, brilliant personality. The book, which reviewer Andy Reinhardt found a bit lacking in business analysis, provides "a fascinating look inside one of the most secretive companies in high tech."

The author, a former reporter for The Economist and the Financial Times, describes a company driven by attention to detail and an in-your-face attitude. Jackson documents instances of alleged insurance fraud and KGB-like behavior from the company's internal-security squad. The account succeeds despite the fact that there have been many developments since it was written.

INSIDE APPLE. And speaking of execs with attitude, there's the one and only Steven P. Jobs, whose exploits, along with those of other Silicon Valley biggies, are described in Apple: The Inside Story of Intrigue, Egomania, and Business Blunders (Times Business) by Wall Street Journal West Coast technology reporter Jim Carlton.

This effort, too, is plagued by the inherent inability of book authors to keep up with events. Still, Carlton's exhaustive reporting brings to life crucial moments out of Apple Computer Inc.'s past, noted reviewer Peter Burrows. And even Microsoft Corp.'s chief, Bill Gates, comes off fairly well. Apple-watchers, take note.

A company crisis is also the theme of Car: A Drama of the American Workplace (Norton) by Mary Walton, a former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter. When she set out in 1993 to chronicle the redesign of Ford Motor Co.'s highly successful Taurus, Walton never imagined that she'd be documenting the carmaker's comeuppance. The author became a virtual Ford insider for almost three years. But even before she had finished the book, which covers the new Taurus from conception to assembly line to dealers' lots, it was clear that the updated model would be something less than a megahit.

Car "provides an unusual glimpse into how a big corporation filled with smart, capable, and well-intentioned people can fall...far short of its goals," said reviewer Kathleen Kerwin. It's a good read, too.

Such good intentions, it's often said, constitute the macadam of the road to hell--and to business extinction. But untimely corporate deaths are avoidable, says onetime Royal Dutch/Shell Group executive Arie de Geus in The Living Company: Habits for Survival in a Turbulent Business Environment (Harvard Business School Press). After noting that the life expectancy of the average multinational is only 40 to 50 years, de Geus reports that there are some notable exceptions, such as Sweden's Stora, founded some 700 years ago as a copper miner and now a paper and chemical producer. The high corporate death rate, he feels, represents huge wasted potential.

The author describes a 1993 Shell study that looked at long-lived companies. It found they refused to allow the loss of a key resource to bring ruin, regularly shifting businesses. Furthermore, de Geus says that too many outfits expire because their officers run them as profit machines rather than as "a community of humans" that values tolerance and "flocking," or bringing people together in a way that promotes the dissemination of learning. Said reviewer Julia Flynn, The Living Company "provides an interesting challenge to basic assumptions about the way companies work."

There's plenty of flocking in Japan, says Ivan P. Hall. In fact, claims the onetime university professor, Japan's cultural practices represent a formidable barrier against foreign professionals. In Cartels of the Mind: Japan's Intellectual Closed Shop (Norton), Hall focuses on the largely extralegal practices that keep the law, journalism, research, and academe mostly closed to non-Japanese.

Bar association rules there severely limit the practices of foreign lawyers. Elite reporters' groups, the kisha kurabu, enjoy privileged access to sources but are closed to all not affiliated with Japanese news outlets. Universities regularly deny tenure to non-Japanese professors. "Japanese intellectuals maintain these barriers with enthusiastic conviction," says Hall, "and with no visible desire to reciprocate the open access they themselves enjoy in other countries." Hall, says reviewer Robert Neff, "demonstrates passionately and persuasively that [Japan's] cartels aren't only economic."

CEO AS TEACHER. Finally, class, raise your hands if you're aware of a recent book with a fresh take on leadership. No? Well, check out The Leadership Engine: How Winning Companies Build Leaders at Every Level (HarperBusiness) by University of Michigan Business School professor Noel M. Tichy with writer Eli Cohen. It is the book's thesis that "a company that continually produces leaders at all levels is here to stay because it has people who anticipate and know how to deal with change."

Many of the usual CEO suspects, including PepsiCo Inc.'s Roger A. Enrico and AlliedSignal Inc.'s Lawrence A. Bossidy, are discussed by Tichy and Cohen. But this time, it's the work of the chief executives as teachers that's celebrated. What's more, the authors introduce us to a host of less familiar leaders, including a ServiceMaster Co. account manager and the head of an AlliedSignal seatbelt factory. We also read how such companies as General Electric Co. and Intel penalize executives who fail to develop subordinates' leadership skills. By placing mentoring atop executive priority lists, Tichy and Cohen "offer managers a way of becoming ever more influential," said reviewer John A. Byrne. Education and leadership--that's what the top business books are all about.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.