I like to read at my leisure, looking out for
interesting new ideas about the (hi-)stories of companies, be
they famous or less famous. Written by academic
business historians or by journalists, business histories
provide a longitudinal perspective on the evolution of companies
over longer time periods, and hence provide perspectives of the
log-term implications of the actions of business leaders -
something often lost in an age when cross-sectional research
dominates fields such a strategic management. The books on this page
have been written by authors
independent of the companies they study, and they tell the story
as it happened with rich qualitative data, clearly separated
from the authors own interpretation of events. I like that style
because it enables to reflect myself on why things may have
evolved the way it did, and what that implies for any of the
issues we research and teach at business schools.
Curiously, many business history books that I have read are
not published in English, quite contrary to the sort of things I
otherwise read. For more books, visit my related sites:
books I recently read,
books about China, and
scholarly book reviews.
Lego (The Miracle in Lego), by
Niels Lunde, published by Jyllands-Postens Forlag, Copenhagen,
Lego is probably the most popular
children's toy the world over. Less known perhaps, behind those
little bricks stands a family business from, Billund, a small
town in the West of Denmark that has been one of the greatest
success stories of Danish business in the past half century.
However, the company fell on hard time early
in the 21st century as it tried to play in broader markets, and
seemed loose its focus what made it strong and famous in the
first place, namely its toy bricks. As performance deteriorated,
the owner appointed new people to the board, and dismissed other
- perhaps a bit late - ad eventually put his faith into a young
man in his mid thirties who led a restructuring that brought
Lego back on the path of profitable growth. Essentially the new
strategy is not unlike the strategy of the 1960s and 1970s,
namely focused on one particular products - Lego bricks and
their variations - and the emphasizing the pedagogical qualities
as well as the fun aspects for kids that these bricks provide.
The story of crisis and how Lego
eventually came through it, is told by Niels Lunde, a business
journalist, in great detail. It raises interesting questions of
wider relevance to management, especially in family firms. For
example, it illustrates the dangers of a brand extension
strategies as Lego followed it from the late 1990s, when Lego
tried to leverage its brand to enter other segments of the
children toy market for which it actually lack critical
competences. It illustrates the challenges of corporate
governance in a family owned firm that is managed by directors
that are not members of the family, but who have to report to
the family - and hence respect their vales - rather than to
financial investors. It shows how a relatively young leader can
through persistence, thorough analysis, and if necessary tough
actions turn around a company facing several years of decline.
But it also illustrates the merits of old-fashioned values such
as focusing on the merits of the product rather than short term
financial gain, and of corporate culture that may have been an
obstacle to change, yet at the same time provides the glue that
enabled the turnaround.
draws four general lessons from the Lego experience (page
275-281): First, you need a solid, unbiased analysis, and avoid
the trap of blaming external factors for poor performance.
Second, you need a clear philosophy that explains "why does this
company exist", or in other words what do we add to the world
that others don't. Third, you need to understand your core
competences and how you are able to create competitive
advantage. Fourth, you need a culture where people think for
themselves and are creative. (I am not aware of an English
translation of this book).
from Pills to Pharmaceuticals, by Tony Corley, published
by Crucile Books, Lancaster, 2011.
Meticulously researched, yet very readable, this
book tells the history of Beecham, which in the 1980s and
1990s was a major UK pharmaceuticals and consumer goods giant.
It was written by a former colleague of mine, Tony Corley of the
University of Reading (well, strictly speaking Tony retired some
15 years before I arrived in Reading, but he was very much
present in the office ... some people never really retire).
Tony Corley traces Beecham from the foundation as
a pill manufacturer in the 1840s to its amalgamation first in
1989 in "Smithkline Beecham" and then in 2000 in "GlaxoSmithkline".
The story of Beecham includes many early international
business activities of the sort we research in the age of
globalization. Before 1914, when Beecham was still a
family-owned firm, it had a production subsidiary in the USA and
export sales especially to Commonwealth countries such as
Australia, Canada and India. Already in the 1960s, Beecham had
an R&D subsidiary in the USA and was engaged in extensive
"reverse knowledge transfer"; it appointed a non-British CEO in
1986; and after the merger with Smithkline it had legal
headquarters in the UK, but operational headquarters in the USA.
Such high degrees of internationalization continue to create
major organizational challenges even for the best
Key to the evolution of the firm have been the
men (no women) at the helm of the organization. Each
one of them leaves his mark on the organization, but often not
in the way they intended. Several entrepreneurs shaped new paths
of growth and/or profitability for the firm, while others kept
the firm afloat in volatile times. Tony Corley does a great job
in exploring the character of the key players in the company,
and the interplay between them in the company leadership. While
most of the leaders had major achievements, none of them was
flawless, each having personal weaknesses. Great people
sometimes also make great mistakes, that successors then
have to deal with. The worst mistakes of Beecham CEOs, arguably,
relate overly ambitious diversification strategies - notably
in 1914, 1945 and 1971, a surprisingly uncommon concern even
in today's world of global business. Another "mistake" from a
business perspective might be to loose focus of your business
and invest your money in your son's musical education - though
that just might just enable one of the greatest conductors of
the time. Hence, music lovers associate the name Beecham with
Sir Thomas Beecham, a descendent of the family that build the
Mærsk: Manden og Magten (Maersk:
The Man and the Power), by Peter Suppli Benson, Björn Lambek
og Stig Örskov, published by Politikkens Forlag, Copenhagen, new
revised edition November 2007.
Business history can sometimes be as
exciting to read as a crime novel. This book tells story of
Mærsk McKinney Möller, the world's
largest container shipping line. Established in 1904 by his
father A.P. Möller, the company now known as
become a formidable player in the global shipping industry, and
a key player in Danish industry - and politics. Mærsk
and his father are admired for their spectacular business
acumen, making Danes proud.
Yet, with a company of such size and
political weight, it is hardly a surprise that it also attracted
controversy: from historical disputes over activities during the
German occupation, to controversial oil concessions in the North
Sea, tax negotiations with Danish prime ministers to price
fixing convictions by the European competition authorities. The
journalists authoring this book tell the story of the ups and
downs of the company and it undisputed leader.
retired from the board aged 90 in 2003, and since then company
became a little more like other companies: with a boardroom coup
that brought in Carlsberg's CEO Niels Smedegaard Andersen as new
CEO in November 2007. (In Danish, I am not aware of an
English version of this book).
McKinney Möller passed away aged 98 in the year 2012.
om Danisco: Med i kulissen ved rekordsalget af et
industriklenodie (The Dance around Danisco: As an observer at
the record sale of an industrial icon),
by Jesper Kongskov, Copenhagen: Gyldendal Business, 2012.
The take-over of one company by another often
involves a lot of drama behind closed doors, yet due to
confidentiality commitments by the key players, little of that
usually reaches the public. The sale of food ingredients
manufacturer Danisco to American chemical giant DuPond has been the
biggest such sale in Denmark. The management of both companies
managed to kept secret until the deal was negotiated and
presented to shareholders. Yet, they did not agree and held out
for more, and eventually convinced Dupond to up its offer.
The book tells the story in rare detail, and
provides unusual insights into how key players in a take-over
battle negotiate, employ advisers, involve the media
strategically, and last not least use brinkmanship to come
closer to their goals. The shareholders in Danisco were widely
dispersed, and no none major shareholder would represent a
substantial enough share to secure the deal, yet they managed to
band together and extract a further price increase from Dupond.
It also tells of the development of Danisco ahead of the
take-over: The company went through a radical restructuring from
a domestic conglomerate to become a global player in a
specialist industry, but the new company had been slow to
integrate new acquired operations (also see my
blog, June 2012),
and economic performance had been disappointing shareholders for
a while, in fact they forced a resignation of the chairman only
a few months before negotiation for the sale started. The author
had been following Danisco throughout the years as a journalist
for the local business newspaper Børsen,
and interviewed key players again e few months after the deal
has been finalized. This provides him with very rich primary
data to tell the story, and he does so in a very lively style.
(though he does not provide detailed sources, which makes it
hard to verify details of the story, nor does he consider
scholarly work on Danisco).
As a complement to the book, the newspaper Børsen
discusses the book with the former CEO of Danisco, Tom Knutzen,
If the book is ever published in English, I
would suggest a more catchy title; how about 'The battle for
Danisco: How small Danish shareholders played cat and mouse with
Asian Firms: History, Institutions and Management, by
Frank B Tipton, published by Elgar, 2007.
Frank Tipton, an Australian business historian, describes
businesses across Asia in a historical perspective. His review
of the evolution of political, economic and business spheres
since the 19th century provides a grounded understanding of
businesses today, especially the cultural and institutional
traditions. The book provides many historical details, yet
excels at outlining the the broad long-term trends and setting
events in historical context. It also provides insights into the
communalities and differences in business history in Japan,
Korean, Taiwan, China (Mainland), Thailand, Hong Kong and
Singapore. Tipton has studied the region for decades, and he introduces
readers to multifaceted literatures on Asia. His eclectic and
historical approach offers a depth of understanding that goes
well beyond the writing many contemporary 'doing business in'
authors. His chapters on China are most detailed.