Business Adventures: Twelve Classic Tales from the World of Wall Street by John Brooks
Business Adventures remains the best business book I’ve ever read. – Bill Gates, The Wall Street Journal
What do the $350 million Ford Motor Company disaster known as the Edsel, the fast and incredible rise of Xerox, and the unbelievable scandals at General Electric and Texas Gulf Sulphur have in common? Each is an example of how an iconic company was defined by a particular moment of fame or notoriety; these notable and fascinating accounts are as relevant today to understanding the intricacies of corporate life as they were when the events happened.
Stories about Wall Street are infused with drama and adventure and reveal the machinations and volatile nature of the world of finance. Longtime New Yorker contributor John Brooks’s insightful reportage is so full of personality and critical detail that whether he is looking at the astounding market crash of 1962, the collapse of a well-known brokerage firm, or the bold attempt by American bankers to save the British pound, one gets the sense that history repeats itself.
Five additional stories on equally fascinating subjects round out this wonderful collection that will both entertain and inform readers . . . Business Adventures is truly financial journalism at its liveliest and best.
Bill Gates’s Favorite Business Tales, in The New Yorker
In 1969, John Brooks published “Business Adventures,” his collection of New Yorker business stories—“Twelve classic tales from the worlds of Wall Street and the modern American corporation.” Now, forty-five years later, Bill Gates, in the Wall Street Journal, is calling it his “favorite business book.” (He says it’s Warren Buffett’s favorite business book, too.) It’s easy to see why. Brooks, who wrote for the magazine for more than thirty years, approached business in an unusual way. He had an eye for the technical details that mattered to insiders, but the sensibility of a broad-minded cultural critic.
“Business Adventures” went out of print in the seventies, but it’s coming back into print this year. Gates is sharing one of the book’s chapters, “Xerox Xerox Xerox Xerox,” on his Web site. (“The headline alone belongs in the Journalism Hall of Fame,” Gates writes.) First published in the magazine
in 1967, Brooks’s Profile of Xerox tells the story of the technologists who took enormous risks to create the Xerox machine. (Many people at Xerox poured their life savings into the R. & D. effort.) It’s full of insights about the fraught business of invention. It has also, with time, become a window onto the past: it documents particulars of technological history that might otherwise have been forgotten. Here’s Brooks describing an early Xerox machine, the 914:
Technologically, the 914 is so complex (more complex, some Xerox salesmen insist, than an automobile) that it has an annoying tendency to go wrong, and consequently Xerox maintains a field staff of thousands of repairmen who are presumably ready to answer a call on short notice. The most common malfunction is a jamming of the supply of copy paper, which is rather picturesquely called a “mispuff,” because each sheet of paper is raised into position to be inscribed by an interior puff of air, and the malfunction occurs when the puff goes wrong. A bad mispuff can occasionally put a piece of the paper in contact with hot parts, igniting it and causing an alarming cloud of white smoke to issue from the machine; in such a case, the operator is urged to do nothing, or, at most, to use a small fire extinguisher that is attached to it, since the fire burns itself out comparatively harmlessly if left alone, whereas a bucket of water thrown over a 914 may convey potentially lethal voltages to its metal surface.
“I was frightened of it at first,” one Xerox “operator” tells Brooks. “The Xerox men say, ‘If you’re frightened of it, it won’t work,’ and that’s pretty much right. It’s a good scout; I’m fond of it now.”
The title, however apt, doesn’t indicate the fascination of the book in which Mr. Brooks dramatizes thirteen recent parlous, sometimes perilous, episodes on Wall Street. Three of the essays appeared in his previous collection, The Fate of the Edsel and Other Business Adventures (in very slightly different form) and many have appeared in The New Yorker. But all of the material seems quite fresh. Here again is the classic “”American antisuccess story”” of the Edsel, paired with the happier fortunes of Xerox. The federal income tax is anatomized, as is the devaluation of sterling (some of the brokers lost faith as well as money), and the market fluctuation of 1962. GE price-fixing appears again as does the story of Piggly-Wiggly.
Perhaps the most interesting essays are on David Lilienthal’s post-government career as financial consultant, the Stock Exchange’s public-spirited (and tormented) decision to back a foundering firm in “”making the customers whole,”” and, finally, the case of Goodrich vs. Latex over the issue of executive raiding–fought in the courts over “”trade secrets”” and its derivative question for all technocratic executives–“”Am I married to my job?”” Surprisingly few of these adventures involve piracy–it’s more a quest for a grail of gold–with great stress on the public-spirited nature of some of the entrepreneurs. Rare pro-business portraiture which will stand up among the best financial journalism.
STEPHEN M. ST ONGE REVIEW
Back in the Late Bronze Age, aka the 1970s, I discovered John Brooks and his marvelous accounts of Wall Street and USAmerican business. Brooks died in 1993, and his books – Business Adventures have been half-forgotten. I’m very pleased to see this title rereleased in digital format, and I hope all his works are appear soon as eBooks.
This book casts a wide net over the USAmerican business and investing scene, always with with and insight. There’s a lot to be learned here, as Brooks examines the three-day stock market mini-crash of 1962, how Ford lost a bundle on the Edsel, how GE broke the anti-trust laws, how Xerox became very wealthy (later, Xerox became very broke, but that was after this article) . . . all great stuff.
Rereading these after forty years, I’m impressed with Brooks ability to get to the bottom of things, especially when there is no “bottom”. Why did the New York Stock exchange lose over 5% one day in 1962, then rally suddenly? No one really knows, but Brooks examines the chaos of that day, and dissects the explanations offered after the fact — while noting that BEFORE the fact, none of the explainers had a clue what was about to happen. Interspersed are comments from THE first book ever written on stock markets, “Confusion of Confusions”, by Josseph Penso de la Vega (no product link; apparently Amazon doesn’t want to use its reviews to sell books other than the one being reviewed anymore). Brooks demonstrates how little has changed over the centuries.
And so it goes through the rest of the essays. Facts and insight, presented with wit, charm, and grace. Highly recommended.
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