Off the shelf -- fantasy dinner party

Forbes Great Minds of Business

With Gretchen Morgenson

ISBN: 0471196525

John Wiley & Sons, 1997

$39.95

Imagine an elegant meal featuring conversations with Andrew Grove, Frederick Smith, Peter Lynch, Pleasant Rowland and Paul Volcker, and you've got the essence of Forbes Great Minds of Business, a companion book to the Public Broadcasting Service television series that aired in the US late last year. The five chapters are set up by Forbes Senior Editor Gretchen Morgenson as Q&A sessions with each luminary, preceded by an (occasionally redundant) introduction. The casual but insightful nature of each interview plays out for the general business reader as if he'd been delivered by limousine to an evening of revealing repartee.

Indeed, the best parts of the book are the personal touches: why Intel Chairman and CEO Andrew Grove embraces fear; how Federal Express founder and CEO Frederick Smith's experiences as a Marine in Vietnam balanced his perspective in the company's early days; how former Fidelity Investments manager Peter Lynch involved his neighbours in determining a stock purchase; why Pleasant Rowland, founder and president of the American Girls doll conglomerate, Pleasant, helps answer the telephones during the holidays; and how former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul Volcker's father inspired his ethos of government service.

The interviews also offer some great examples of nonlinear business thinking. For example, at one point in 1985, Intel was getting hammered in the memory business. Conferring with cofounder Gordon Moore, Grove asked: "If the board kicked us out and hired a bunch of new people, what would they do?" That kind of innovative thought process helped Grove determine the best course of action (which was to get the heck out of the memory business). Similarly, when anybody scoffs at Rowland's seeming diffusion into dolls, clothing and magazines, she rejoins that she's not in those businesses; she's in the "little girl business". (As a matter of fact, she says it a little too often, just as Lynch repeatedly cites how bad the economy was in 1990.)Along with nonlinear thinking, there's also a great deal of common sense. Lynch notes that if you invest $1000, all you can lose is $1000, but you can make considerably more. "You can be wrong in this business three or four times out of 10 and still make money," he notes. Nice odds. In addition to pertinent advice, there are some gaffes, to be sure. Forbes' Morgenson lets Grove off too easily in the discussion of how he handled the 1994 PR disaster that ensued after the discovery of a floating-point bug in the Pentium chip. And in a picture of Grove delivering a trade show keynote address, the caption identifies the event as Comdex, even though he's standing next to a podium clearly marked PC Expo.

Overall, though, Forbes Great Minds of Business is a tasty five-course meal that's both memorable and easily digestible.

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