A portrait of his excellence

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TOM PETERS is not the original management guru - a whole range of thinkers, from Frederick Taylor to Peter Drucker, had already made their mark by the time he came along a decade and a half ago. But he has certainly taken the genre to new heights.

What started it was a book he wrote with Robert Waterman, then a colleague at the international consulting firm McKinsey & Co. When it first appeared, in 1982, In Search of Excellence failed to make much of an impact. But it eventually captured the imagination of an America that was in an introspective mood as a result of its industry being bested by the Japanese - for the simple reason that it offered some hope.

Never mind that few writers would create such a hostage to fortune as to hold up a bunch of companies as examples of US excellence. In effect, it started the trend for concentrating on people over complex analysis. Unfortunately, perhaps, it also made it fashionable for gurus to come up with obvious truths.

Though Waterman later went on to write more academic books, the pair's influence can be seen in a good proportion of the management books that have appeared since. And just as theories go in and out of fashion, so do companies. As is now well known, many of the "excellence" companies almost inevitably soon fell from grace, but many are now reappearing in the management texts. Peters' reaction is to say: "The eight principles of In Search of Excellence have survived intact. Just the companies haven't." Fine. But, as Stuart Crainer points out in his entertaining biography Corporate Man to Corporate Skunk, the principles are "all-embracing truisms" that raise more questions than answers.

Though the book has made Peters a fair amount of cash through selling six million-odd copies over the years, he has really made his money on the stump. Executives still pay thousands of pounds to hear him froth and rage at his seminars on the importance of getting close to your customers. There is no doubting the role Peters has played in bringing business into the mainstream - and in making it possible for all kinds of people with a good patter to earn a lot of money on the conference circuit.

Crainer's examination of the many contradictions behind the man - who is now almost a metaphor for confusion in business circles - is unlikely to halt these developments. But he has done a lot to explain the context in which Peters and a generation of wannabes have developed.

q Corporate Man to Corporate Skunk by Stuart Crainer is published by Capstone at pounds 18.99