BOOKS: Punchlines and Prejudice - Barry Gibbons' attempt to star-rank a dozen business luminaries is candid, aphoristic and amusing but, for Jon Moulton, a bit too determinedly upbeat

BOOKS: Punchlines and Prejudice - Barry Gibbons' attempt to star-rank a dozen business luminaries is candid, aphoristic and amusing but, for Jon Moulton, a bit too determinedly upbeat - DREAM MERCHANTS AND HOWBOYS; By Barry J Gibbons; John Wiley; pounds 1

by JON MOULTON, managing partner, Alchemy Partners
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

DREAM MERCHANTS AND HOWBOYS; By Barry J Gibbons; John Wiley; pounds 18.99

I have never met Barry Gibbons but I've heard a lot about him from his old colleagues at Grand Met, who, while becoming widely acknowledged as testers of the limits of creative accounting, managed to do some serious feats of corporate restructuring and some big deals. Gibbons was the man chosen to sort out Burger King after the expensive-looking, goodwill-rich takeover of Pillsbury. Indeed, throughout the book, snippets of the Burger King story appear and it would have made a great story on its own. Gibbons seems to have been a big success at the burger business.

His character shows through at least as strongly as do those of the entrepreneurs who are the subjects of this book. It is prob-ably good that his book was written after Gibbons left Burger King. His endless references to bodily and sexual functions and parts might well have left his customers wondering as to the true nature of the product they were eating.

If you are looking for a source of novel and entertaining sentences with an anatomical or reproductive bent, try another book. If you want quantity, it's here. In a chatty style, Dream Merchants and Howboys identifies the key success features of a dozen famous careers.

The victims include Benetton, Dyson, Dell, Roddick, Jobs, Branson and the like. Each is covered in a more or less or-ganised conversational manner. The analysis is apparently based a little on personal experience, somewhat on other analyses and books, but mostly on the writer's personal prejudices.

Not that I regard his prejudices as without value. I share some. For example, in respect of that great man of our time Sir (how?) Richard Branson, Gibbons labels him a 'pompous, loud tosser'. (Sir Richard is the man who now causes you to pay more to travel from London to Manchester than from London to New York - clearly not the work of an ordinary man.) Gibbons struggles to get the analysis of Sir Richard much more advanced than this, describing him as 'a walking bundle of conflicts'. Hardly a revelation.

As his title suggests, Gibbons' analytical categories consist of Dream Merchants (roughly, determined people with strong, odd ideas) and Howboys (people whose own actions market and reinforce the ideas). And, insofar as there is analysis, it leads to scores for each victim of one to five stars.

Tim Kelleher of Southwest Airlines gets the absolute accolade of five stars, both as a Dream Merchant and a Howboy, for his low-cost, high-fun airline promoted with vigour and outrageous activity. Kelleher comes over as a great all-round leader, but above all as a master of fun harnessed to business.

James Dyson, however, is a five-star Dream Merchant but only a one-star Howboy. Too dull, it seems.

Poor Jurgen Schrempp of DaimlerChrysler gets one star for each, plus a lashing for an acquisition policy 'like a mongoose and two cobras stapled together inside one of those plastic supermarket bags'.

You'll probably have guessed by now that, at least for an old cynic like me, the book is unsatisfying. The analytical content is in part careful and incisive. Elsewhere it seems to be driven by a pre-determined need to deliver a strong punchline. And even my love for these was more than satiated.

The humour is relentless and the style is one I associate with motivational sales conferences and determinedly populist business books. Examples: 'If God was giving the earth an enema, Miami would be among the top choices for the hole', and 'Tangible assets - something you can kick'. I found the combined effect rather like a three-hour Rab C Nesbitt monologue.

After completing these analyses, Gibbons moves to build on them. As you would expect, he finds no single golden rule. Regrettably, he then gives 10 things that you might do. Some of them, 'Take a Restless Pill', or 'Wrap Your Riddle in a Mystery and then in an Enigma' probably best sum up the book for me. And finally, 'Lighten Up, and Have Faith in Some Folk'. With advice like that, it's a mystery how anyone can go wrong.

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