The Best Business Books of 2001

Stories of the people behind business: Moguls and maids, empire-builders, egotists, and e-scamming kids

How do run-of-the-mill businesses become front-runners? That's the question posed in Jim Collins' Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap...and Others Don't (HarperBusiness). The volume is one of 10 top business books of 2001 as judged by BusinessWeek reviewers.

Collins is co-author of the perennial best-seller Built to Last. In this new book, he crunches decades of data to divine what separates 11 overachievers from a control group of peers that didn't make the leap from average to A+ performers on Wall Street. From Abbott Laboratories (ABT ) to Wells Fargo & Co. (WFC ), all of Collins' great companies were commanded by low-key CEOs whose ambition was "first and foremost for the company." They surrounded themselves with smart, hard-working people who were not afraid to face their shortcomings. These managers never lost sight of what their companies did best. Over time, thanks to their perseverance and the careful use of technology, the enterprises lifted off. Although reviewer Michael Arndt felt the author relied too heavily on share price as the chief measure of greatness, he judged that "Collins again has written a book that seems built to last."

Although it isn't on Collins' list, General Electric Co. (GE ) is, to many, the epitome of greatness. And in case you haven't heard, its former CEO, Jack Welch, happens to have a book of his own. Jack: Straight From the Gut (Warner), co-written with BusinessWeek Senior Writer John A. Byrne, is a highly subjective and uneven how-I-did-it account, delivered in the sometimes electric, sometimes brutal voice of an archetypal captain of industry. There are riveting stories--including how Welch worked his way into the CEO's office, how he wisely bought NBC (GE ) and foolishly bought Kidder, Peabody & Co., and how the attempted acquisition of Honeywell International Inc. was thwarted by European regulators. There's an impassioned defense against charges that GE polluted the Hudson River with PCBs. But the topic dearest to Welch's heart is personnel: getting, grooming, and keeping the best, while dumping those judged second-rate. "This is a valuable, pungently written business book by a man who lights up every room he enters," said reviewer Ken Auletta.

Another corner-office autobiography is Swimming Across: A Memoir by Intel Chairman Andrew S. Grove (Warner). But this account focuses strictly on formative years--Grove's childhood in Nazi-occupied and later Communist-led Hungary. Perhaps it was here that Grove developed a penchant for risk-taking and an ability to persevere against the odds. In 1944, the German army marched into Hungary. Young Andris Istvan Grof's father was conscripted as a laborer, and the boy and his mother soon fled Budapest for the countryside. When Russians replaced Germans after the war, the torment didn't cease. A soldier raped Grove's mother. His father miraculously returned, emaciated beyond recognition, only to see his dairy business nationalized. Finally, with the Russian suppression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956, Grove set out with a young friend on a perilous run, mostly at night, for the Austrian border. Capped by a dramatic escape to America, the account is "fascinating and moving," said reviewer G. David Wallace.

This year's list includes two books treating the Justice Dept.'s antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft Corp. (MSFT ). The volumes may be seen as complementary, since they cover different ground. Wired correspondent John Heilemann's Pride Before the Fall: The Trials of Bill Gates and the End of the Microsoft Era (HarperCollins) is less about the trial per se than about the background to the litigation. Heilemann describes how the anti-Microsoft movement began with the complaints of a few disgruntled Silicon Valley executives. He details the troubles Justice had in getting Microsoft's detractors to testify on the record. And he ushers the reader into many of the bargaining sessions between Justice's lawyers and Microsoft's. Gates appears as a kind of child emperor who thinks he knows everything about both law and software. Reviewer Dan Carney saluted the author for taking one of the most complex trials in history and turning it into a book that reads "almost like a thriller--fast-paced and hard to put down."

In World War 3.0: Microsoft and Its Enemies (Random House), New Yorker writer Ken Auletta seeks to put the reader inside Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson's courtroom. At times this can be slow going, as the author follows the trial witness by witness. But "where Auletta excels is in getting Jackson to open up," found reviewer Carney. The judge tells the author that he finds Chairman Bill Gates "Napoleonic" and "arrogant," and Jackson describes Microsoft's behavior as "sophomoric." Then, Jackson turns his fire on appeals courts, which he says embellish their rulings with superficial scholarship. Once again, Gates comes in for harsh treatment. "Crowds do not part when he enters a room," says Auletta of Gates, whom he describes as sitting "slumped when on a stage, looking less like a mogul than a boy ordered to wear a suit."

A lively account of Digital Age doings may be found in Next: The Future Just Happened (Norton) by Michael Lewis, author of The New New Thing and Liar's Poker. The author views the Internet as a potent new weapon for amateurs of all stripes, especially the young, to wield against what he sees as the crumbling hegemony of professionals such as lawyers, stock analysts, and media executives. Among the newly empowered is a 14-year-old New Jersey kid whom the Securities & Exchange Commission accused of profiting by fraudulently manipulating stocks under aliases on online message boards. Reviewer Robert D. Hof termed the entertaining book "a wake-up call at a time when many believe the Net was a flash in the pan," offering "the first, unsettling glimpses of capitalism's ruthless new future."

A different kind of social commentary may be found in Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (Metropolitan Books). The social critic and author of Fear of Falling tells what she found when she left a comfortable life to join the workforce of $6-to-$7-an-hour housekeepers, salesclerks, restaurant workers, and the like. A key finding: The working poor have little choice but to take more than one job at a time. Ehrenreich struggles to keep costs low, but even with no children to support, she can't make ends meet on one paycheck. Working two jobs--as a maid and as a nursing-home aide--proves exhausting. And getting cheap, safe housing proves an ongoing challenge. The volume is by turns painful, angry, and amusing, as the author often finds humor in her own plight. Said reviewer Anne Colamosca: "This important volume will force anyone who reads it to acknowledge the often desperate plight of Ehrenreich's subjects."

There's more social criticism, and humor, to be found in Empire: A Tale of Obsession, Betrayal, and the Battle for an American Icon by Wall Street Journal writer Mitchell Pacelle (Wiley). This tale of the Empire State Building focuses on New York's sometimes seamy real estate scene and brings alive a vivid cast of characters. There's Leona Helmsley, the "Queen of Mean"; Donald J. Trump, who considers remaking the upper floors of the Empire State into luxury condos; and Hideki Yokoi, a Japanese businessman with a penchant for trophy properties. Pacelle gives the reader an overview of New York real estate, one of the city's greatest generators of wealth. And his tale of the battle for the Empire State features legal wrangling, political posturing, family feuds, financial high jinks, and lost fortunes. No wonder reviewer Robert McNatt called the book "a finely wrought narrative that embodies the style--and hysteria--of New York real estate."

A historical look at business may be found in Atlantic Monthly Senior Editor Jack Beatty's Colossus: How the Corporation Changed America (Broadway Books). Scholars often debate the relative importance of various institutions--churches, say, or political parties--in shaping developments. But Beatty feels there's one institution whose clout has consistently been underestimated: the corporation. Colossus is composed of readings ranging from historian Alfred D. Chandler Jr.'s description of the emergence of modern administrative business hierarchies to novelist Joseph Heller's account of cutthroat office culture. The author provides essays pondering the place of the corporation in the good society--while worrying that there is no adequate counterweight today to global corporate power. Reviewer Christopher Farrell, a contributing economics editor, found that "the historical essays that make up Colossus form a far better business book than many management tracts."

Finally, there's Giants of Enterprise: Seven Business Innovators and the Empires They Built by Harvard Business School historian Richard S. Tedlow (HarperBusiness). This gallery of executive portraits describes the careers and personalities of steelmaker Andrew Carnegie, auto maker Henry Ford, Sam Walton of Wal-Mart (WMT ), George Eastman of Eastman Kodak (EK ), Thomas J. Watson Sr. of IBM (IBM ), Charles Revson of Revlon (REV ), and Robert Noyce of Intel (INTC ). The author explores the common traits that helped these men realize success, such as an ability to create or adopt new technology faster and more effectively than others. He also describes their peculiarities--and the tendency of many of these men to lose their grip on reality, veering into what the author terms "derangement." Carnegie, for instance, felt that he alone could achieve world peace; Ford became a crusading anti-Semite. In a review that will appear in a coming issue, Christopher Farrell says that even though the lives of these entrepreneurs are well-known, Tedlow's "passionate and fluid writing" makes Giants of Enterprise a pleasure to read.

Compiled by Hardy Green

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