Book Review: King Larry by James D. Scurlock

King Larry: The Life and Ruins
of a Billionaire Genius

By James D. Scurlock
Scribner; $26; 328 pages

James D. Scurlock’s King Larry is a fun, trashy analog to Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs. Like Jobs, Scurlock’s subject, Larry Hillblom, the founder of the express-delivery pioneer DHL, was a postwar California boy who bootstrapped his way out of his working-class background through preternatural drive and iconoclastic vision. Like Jobs, Hillblom flouted corporate convention by attending meetings in blue jeans and not giving a damn about consensus and social niceties. Also like Jobs, Hillblom had a gift for anticipating consumer needs before consumers did—and was rewarded richly for his prescience.

Yet whereas the cover of Isaacson’s book is minimalist and Apple Store-austere, King Larry’s cover assaults the eyes with the garish red-and-yellow color scheme of DHL, with a border of green palm fronds thrown in for good measure. It’s a telling difference, for Hillblom’s was not an ascetic, intensely art-directed life like Jobs’s, but a messy, vulgar, and at times sordid journey. He is presumed to have died on May 21, 1995, at the age of 52, when the seaplane on which he was a passenger crashed in the waters between Saipan and Pagan, two islands in the Micronesia region of the West Pacific. While the bodies of the pilot and the plane’s other passenger were recovered, Hillblom’s never was, a circumstance that has encouraged conspiracy theorists to suggest that the DHL magnate is still at large, perhaps Colonel Kurtz-ing it up on some remote atoll.

Scurlock doesn’t subscribe to this line of thinking, but he’s wholly absorbed by the weirdness of Hillblom, whose “odd baby face,” as one associate remembers it, became odder still when he had it surgically reconstructed after surviving an earlier plane crash, this one in a Cessna 182 he had been piloting. With this strange face, a spindly frame, and tinted aviators, Hillblom may have looked like a perpetual high school AV nerd from the 1970s. Yet he was a force to be reckoned with, and King Larry’s author is unabashedly thrilled to be in the position to tell Hillblom’s relatively unknown story. “How a peach farmer’s stepson from a flyover town in California’s Central Valley linked continents, abolished centuries-old institutions, and became fabulously wealthy is fascinating stuff,” Scurlock writes.

Scurlock’s enthusiasm is infectious, even if his overcaffeinated prose occasionally runs off the rails and into the ditch of hackiness. (A Scurlock interviewee seldom “says” something, he or she “sniffs” or “crows” or “guffaws”—or, worse, “tells me as she picks at a small bowl of cut watermelon with elegantly thin fingers.”) The author has really done his homework, embedding himself for five months in Saipan, where Hillblom spent much of his later life, and traveling up and down the Pacific seaboard to interview those who knew, worked with, and/or squared off against the elusive Larry.

The best part of King Larry is what might be called the Horatio Alger Procedural, the detailed explication of how a Nowheresville kid created something from nothing. Hillblom was a smart youth who elevated himself methodically, attending the local community college, called Reedley, as a means to getting into Fresno State, which was itself a steppingstone to the law school at the University of California at Berkeley, more commonly known as Boalt Hall. While at Boalt Hall, Hillblom made ends meet by taking a job with a small Los Angeles-based courier firm called MPA. After classes, he would collect documents from offices in the Bay Area, take an evening flight from Oakland to L.A., exchange his documents for a new batch going in the other direction, and then sleep in LAX until a dawn flight brought him back to Oakland. He did his schoolwork on the planes.

Hillblom discovered himself to be both a legal prodigy and a born entrepreneur, and his experience as a courier encouraged him to strike out on his own—or, rather, with the help of a slick MPA salesman three decades his senior named Adrian Dalsey. Dalsey proved useful in schmoozing such blue-chip companies as Bank of America, IBM, and Standard Oil into becoming clients of the Dalsey-Hillblom enterprise. (The “L” in DHL belonged to an early investor named Robert Lynn, who dropped out before the company hit it big.) DHL was incorporated in 1969, four years before Federal Express began operations. Its first routes were between California and Honolulu, where DHL set up its headquarters.

The concept of an express air courier was brilliant in its simplicity. “People wouldn’t believe that we could have their material on the mainland before the office opened,” DHL’s first employee, a woman named Marilyn Corral, tells Scurlock. But this efficiency rankled older, stodgier institutions such as the U.S. Postal Service, which tried to quell the rise of the express couriers because they threatened the postal monopoly. King Larry will make even the most regulation-hungry Elizabeth Warren groupie sympathetic to Big Government’s capacity to unfairly restrain trade.

Fortunately, Hillblom’s legal acuity saw him through these crises, as did his ability to marshal great minds to his cause. (He had already enlisted his old Boalt Hall professors as couriers, offering them free trips to Hawaii and other palmy locales as long as they could travel light.) Although DHL was always a weak sister to FedEx and UPS in the U.S., it was operating in 120 countries by 1979, and remains a huge player in parcel and freight delivery abroad with an estimated €2.4 billion ($3.06 billion) in 2011 revenue. Today, DHL is a division of the German conglomerate Deutsche Post.

There was a dark side to Hillblom’s gift for legal maneuvering, though, and that was his penchant for gaming the law, exploiting its loopholes and ambiguities for personal gain. The unsavory aspects of Hillblom’s personality were amplified by his move, in 1981, to Saipan, the largest island in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), a U.S. territory. Much of King Larry’s second half is a story of how Hillblom turned the CNMI, with its favorable tax laws and pushover officials, into his personal fiefdom, buying a controlling stake in Saipan’s bank, wangling a seat on the CNMI’s Supreme Court, bedding the archipelago’s underage girls, and, in general, being a plundering colonialist sleaze.

Scurlock is a naturally funny writer, and the best of his tales of iniquity-in-paradise hustle along with the clickety-clack momentum of an Elmore Leonard caper. Still, for all the reporting he has done, he provides little sense of what Hillblom was like—how he talked, how he behaved when happy, sad, or apoplectic. King Larry, the man, remains a creepy cipher.

Despite the author’s jauntiness, the book gets to be more and more of a downer as it goes along, ultimately turning into a broader indictment of rich white men who run roughshod over virgin land and virgin girls, leaving a trail of unfinished building projects and broken lives in their wake. By the time King Larry reaches the protracted, thickety probate part of its narrative—and there emerges an illegitimate-child claimant to the Hillblom estate with the tragicomically pidgin-ish name of Junior Larry Hillbroom—Scurlock’s rollicking ride is over. You just want the book to end, and you’re relieved that it does.

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