Business Review: Book Of The Week - What motivated the masters?

Masters of Enterprise by H W Brands (Simon and Schuster, pounds 20)
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The Independent Online
PROFESSOR BRANDS has provided us with 25 mini-biographies of some of America's most successful "masters of enterprise". Although the author notes that all the chapters are self-contained, and do not need to be read in any specific order, they do follow "an historical logic" in the evolution of the American economy and the culture of capitalism.

Although enterprising British immigrants began to settle in North America from the early days of the 17th century, Professor Brands' stories of America's giants begins with John Jacob Astor, building his fortune from trading and Manhattan real estate during the American Revolution. Astor, Jay Gould and Cornelius Vanderbilt are offered as the most successful examples of mercantile capitalism; Henry Ford and Andrew Carnegie as successful examples of industrial capitalism; J P Morgan, in the 20th century, as the most famous practitioner of financial capitalism; and finally, contemporary icons, such as Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey, in venture capitalism.

Professor Brands' historical logic could have continued into one more stage, with Oprah Winfrey as the bridge, and that is celebrity capitalism. There are many others who, like Oprah Winfrey, have exploited fame. Fortunes have been built by sports stars, Hollywood heart-throbs and pop stars, who have connected fame and fortune.

The Professor's short chapters are not an attempt at comprehensive biography or pseudo-history. They are warm, sympathetic and often witty, factual profiles of larger-than-life characters. Each profile touches on the early life of each of our heroes. Almost all were marked for success from their earliest years. Relationships within the family are often searched for clues that might explain their extraordinary drive and singlemindedness.

Most of the profiles describe their titanic struggles, against competitors and even governments, to achieve their goals. Each chapter provides its own historical context, and reflects on the extraordinary vision of each of these individuals; that ability to see, long before others, what the sources of wealth will be, and the needs of customers, long before the customers themselves have perceived them.

Many of our "masters", such as Cyrus McCormick who introduced the wheat reaper, and Alfred P Sloane of General Motors, were not only charismatic individuals, but they possessed great organisational skills that are still much admired by academics and practitioners of management.

Many of the chapters are exciting yarns in their own right. For example, the story of Cornelius Vanderbilt, the muscular capitalist who built his business by physically fending off his rivals. The man who, at the age of 16 at the beginning of the 19th century, started his own ferry business crossing New York harbour to Manhattan.

He made his name during the war of 1812 between Britain and the United States by delivering reliable transport by sail under very dangerous conditions. Hisstrength, iron fists and jaw of granite served him well on many an occasion. He also had the business acumen to make the leap quickly from sail to steam, and he created one of the greatest transport empires of the century.

When, in the battle for control of a Central American waterway, he was the object of a swindle by some of his former associates, his letter addressed to those shady characters reflects the same pugnacious character. He wrote: "Gentlemen: You have undertaken to cheat me. I won't sue you, for the law is too slow. I'll ruin you. Yours truly, Cornelius Vanderbilt."

Professor Brands pulls no punches about the morals and business ethics, particularly in the last century. Jay Gould's attempts to control the gold market, J P Morgan's creation of a national monopoly in oil, and Andrew Carnegie's industrial wars, reflected a ruthlessness, a disregard for the law and an insensitivity to conflicts of interest. Thomas Watson, the founder of IBM, is described as engaged in "tactics that started at the sharp end and ended at fraudulent".

Many would be regarded as rogues today, and were perhaps even regarded as such by their contemporaries. Under today's more fully developed legal constraints on business behaviour, undoubtedly one or two of our "masters" would be serving time in Federal prison.

If I have a quibble, it is that the historical context of industrial capitalism would have gained by more amplification of the war between capital and labour and the social consequences of unrestricted capitalism in that era.

Our "masters" created great fortunes, but many, such as Carnegie, Ford and Rockerfeller, also left great philanthropic institutions that are alive and well today and continue the generous motives of their benefactors.

Lastly, these profiles provide glimpses of that fertile soil in the United States which nourishes great entrepreneurs and wealth creators.

This is a readable and informative book, rich in characters and events, and with the ring of authenticity.

The reviewer is the chairman of BG group and a director of Rio Tinto and the Georgia- Pacific Corporation