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THE BEST BUSINESS BOOKS OF 1998

Time was, business topics were the neglected stepchildren of book publishing. But things have changed: In 1998, a new emphasis on business could be seen both in the number and quality of business narratives and histories, analyses of economic trends, and even fiction centered on U.S. and global commerce. From that pile, here are our picks for the top 10 business books of 1998.

Consider what became one of the most celebrated--and commercially successful--books of the year, Ron Chernow's Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller Sr. (Random House). The key to its success is both the author's formidable writing ability and the fact that few people today know much about Standard Oil's founder. Chernow gives readers a Rockefeller who is more than the sum of his Standard Oil works, a complex person reflective of both his mother's Methodist charity and self-restraint and his father's snake-oil-peddling ways.

Fascinating chapters describe Standard's anticompetitive practices, the federal antitrust day of reckoning, Rockefeller philanthropies, and the lives of Rockefeller progeny. But most important, we meet John D. Rockefeller Sr. as devil and angel--a man who first aroused the animosity of millions, then later persuaded the public that he was simply ''a sweet, bumbling old man''-- albeit a very, very rich one.

Likewise commendable is Niall Ferguson's The House of Rothschild: Money's Prophets, 1798-1848 (Viking). This is a tale of how another family whose name would become synonymous with wealth rose from obscurity--in this case, from Frankfurt's Jewish ghetto. The Napoleonic wars gave these inventors of the international bond market their big opportunity, as the Rothschilds provided cash to the Duke of Wellington's army, simultaneously making a bundle off of exchange-rate transactions, bond-price speculations, and commissions.

They also profited by financing the stabilization of Europe's conservative monarchies when those wars ended. From £500,000 in 1818, Rothschild capital rose to £4,330,333 in 1828--about 14 times the resources of the family's nearest competitor, Baring Brothers. Ferguson ''brings vitality to a series of compelling issues, ranging from the Rothschilds' staunch Judaism to their intrafamily marriages,'' found reviewer Joseph Mandel.

Critically successful, too, was Richard Powers' novel, Gain (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). It focuses alternately on the histories of the fictional Clare International Corp. and Laura Bodey, a 42-year-old woman whose ovarian cancer may be linked to the company's toxic-waste discharges. The structure draws us bit by bit into their two lives.

As Clare expands from 19th-century soapmaking startup to modern-day conglomerate, weathering the decades' economic ups and downs and regularly adapting to consumer markets, we get a microhistory of U.S. capitalism. Bodey's experiences, too--including painful, ineffective cancer treatments--have a case-study-like verisimilitude. But this is no facile tale of environmental despoliation and its consequences. Instead, Powers shows us how corporations are a key vehicle of societal evolution--and how that change often comes with a startling price tag.

A true-life business tale is the subject of David Greising's I'd Like the World to Buy a Coke: The Life and Leadership of Roberto Goizueta (Wiley). BUSINESS WEEK's former Atlanta bureau chief describes the rise and reign of the Cuban-expatriate chemical engineer who, 26 years after going to work for Coca-Cola Co., overcame long odds to claim that company's top job.

During his first months in office, Goizueta drew up the plan that would set the company's course for the next 17 years. He placed his imprint everywhere, demanding a new discipline from his Managers and dumping businesses that didn't fit his vision fOr Coke. Over the decades, he stumbled--with a foray into moviemaking and with the disastrous new recipe for Coca-Cola. But it was in the ''Coca-Colonization'' of markets from Eastern Europe to Asia that GoIzueta made his mark. By the time of his death in 1997, the company had tripled in size and taken control of half of the globe's soft-drink market.

High market share alone won't protect a company from profitability problems, however. This is the message of The Profit Zone (Times Business) by consultants Adrian J. Slywotzky and David J. Morrison, with Bob Andelman. Instead, the authors say, companies must always be on the lookout for profitable new enterprises. Case studies include the efforts of Bill Gates at Microsoft, Jack Welch at General Electric, Michael Eisner at Walt Disney, and Andrew Grove at Intel.

Heard it all before? Maybe not. ''Rarely--if ever--have any observers so skillfully dissected these executives' strategies to create lessons that can be taught to anybody,'' found reviewer John A. Byrne. And each case study includes an analysis of how a company has outthought and outmaneuvered the competiTion, regularly reinventing its business.

Many worthy titles in 1998 dealt with cyberspace, Net commerce, and Silicon Valley. Perhaps the most caustic is Michael Wolff's Burn Rate: How I Survived the Gold Rush Years on the Internet (Simon & Schuster). Wolff, a journalist who has written for The New York Times and other publications, tells how he began Internet startup Wolff New Media in the early 1990s. Soon, his series of Internet guides and Web sites transformed the outfit into an object of lust for venture capitalists--despite the fact that the company had only about $1 million in annual revenues and losses of around $3 million.

''They had no experience to get in the way of their enthusiasm,'' Wolff reflects of those who would buy out his company for a seven-figure sum. Meanwhile, he has to scramble to keep investors satisfied. In the end, Wolff gets kicked off the board and is forced to fall back on print journalism--a fate he regards as akin to waking from a fever dream. Reviewer Amy Cortese said the book ''should be required reading for all would-be Net entrepreneurs.''

Developments among the Internet-business elite are the focus of Competing on Internet Time: Lessons from Netscape and Its Battle with Microsoft (Free Press) by Michael A. Cusumano and David B. Yoffie. This is the book that made news when Microsoft tried unsuccessfully to get the authors' materials to use in its defense against the government's antitrust suit. But rather than revealing Netscape's team to have been blunderers--and hence more at fault than Microsoft for the market-share losses that recently drove the company into the arms of America Online Inc.--this volume demonstrates that they were exceptionally adept.

Cusumano and Yoffie admire Netscape's leaders for spotting opportunities, shifting strategies deftly, learning quickly from goofs, and building a $500 million company in four years. In interviews, company engineers and execs are remarkably candid. The result, said reviewer Steve Hamm, is ''a marvelously detailed account of Netscape's rocket-launch rise and mid-flight correction.''

How are we to cope with the social consequences of rapid technological and economic change? For Bob Davis and David Wessel, Wall Street Journal reporters and authors of Prosperity: The Coming 20-Year Boom and What It Means to You (Times Business), globalization, technology, and education will, instead of hurting Americans, help them stay on top of the world.

Comparing the current technological boom to the ascent of electric power at the turn of the century, the authors suggest that it will take more than another generation for business to realize the full productivity gains. They also foresee a wealth spurt resulting from freer global trade. But it's when the authors turn to the subject of education that ''their analysis is new and insightful,'' found reviewer Kathleen Madigan. Most important here, they say, are America's community colleges, whose retraining and work-skills offerings will enable the middle class to enjoy ''broadly shared prosperity.''

The darker side of change is the focus of The Corrosion of Character: Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism (Norton) by New York University sociologist Richard Sennett. In our reengineered economy, the author says, we have become unmoored--from our pasts, our neighbors, and ourselves.

Sennett finds the phrase ''no long term'' emblematic of what's troubling about today's social relationships, both at work and at home. Whole workforces are viewed as contingent, jobs are replaced by projects, and change runs rampant. The principle of ''no long term...corrodes trust, loyalty, and mutual commitment.... Detachment and superficial cooperativeness are better armor for dealing with current realities than behavior based on values of loyalty and service.'' Such an approach filters into home life, too, he argues. Reviewer Patrick Smith found that ''Sennett has concentrated into 176 pages a profoundly affecting argument.''

Yet a third take on the New Economy is offered by Diane Coyle in The Weightless World: Strategies for Managing the Digital Economy (MIT Press). Here, the economics editor of Britain's The Independent offers prescriptions for coping posited on political and economic decentralization. ''The economic decline of the nation state'' means local government must help people deal with the increased level of change and risk, she believes. Here, education and training of the workforce should be a priority.

Local economic activity should be nourished: Alternative currencies, for example, should emerge to allow people to trade labor for others' services. Such developments provide a way of jump-starting job creation with less government funds. Reviewer Michael J. Mandel found that the book offered fresh ideas at a time when people are groping to understand the combination of economic vigor and risk with which we live. But it's hardly alone in grappling with these issues: Vigor and risk-taking are at the center of all of 1998's top business books.

COMPILED BY HARDY GREEN



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