Lots of people, from Michael O’Leary to Richard Branson, have tried to use their own story to tell us how to be successful – and yet here most of us are, still slogging away, still waiting for our big break. Perhaps, post-recession, it’s now time to look at some of the world’s great failures, to see if we can derive any lessons from them instead. Besides: who among us can honestly say they don’t enjoy a good Icarus-style fall from grace?
Enter Jamie Oliver (nope, not that one - the business journalist) and entrepreneur Tony Goodwin, whose new book, How They Blew It, is an attempt to extrapolate some lessons from the lives of Lehman Brothers’ Dick Fuld, Adolf Merckel (once the boss of Germany’s largest pharmaceutical company, he stepped in front of a train last year following the collapse of his business) and Enron’s Ken Lay – all of whom built business empires, and then watched them crumble around their ears.
Goodwin, who has seen his own business (recruitment company Antal) come close to collapse, says he was inspired to write the book by Merckel’s death: ‘He had everything most entrepreneurs would aspire to. A $13bn valuation just two years before; 10,000 people working for him – he was the grandfather of German industrial power. And yet, at the age of 74, he stepped in front of a train.’ Perhaps, instead of trawling through yet another self-satisfied monologue on the wonders of success, we could try to learn from those who failed, the authors suggest.
So what are those lessons? Oliver argues that everyone in the book – from communications leviathan WorldCom’s Bernie Ebbers (a technology entrepreneur who famously once said: ‘To this day, I don't know technology, and I don't know finance or accounting’) to property tycoons Guy Naggar and Peter Klimt – is a case study in successful men letting their ambition run away with them. It’s over-reaching on a massive scale. ‘The desire to get more and more seems to be the underlying factor whether you’re Chinese, Russian, American, British or whatever,’ says Goodwin.
Apparently, the devil is in the detail: most of those profiled in the book took their eye off the minutiae. Take Naggar and Klimt: ‘Both said, "you’ve got to build your infrastructure around you, and you’ve got to make sure that everything is integrated",’ says Goodwin. Which is precisely what they didn’t do: ‘They had 80-odd businesses, none of which spoke to each other, with no corporate head office and no corporate structure to integrate them all’. Lehman Brothers’ Dick Fuld’s downfall, on the other hand, was supposedly due to his ‘tough love’ strategy: he was so draconian with his staff, they were too frightened to give him bad news – until it was too late.
The book might take a bit of a red-top view of its subjects – structuring most of the case studies like Victorian morality tales – but it’s a fresh take on self-help. After all, learning from others’ mistakes is precisely what history is all about.
‘How They Blew It: The CEOs and Entrepreneurs Behind Some of the World’s Most Catastrophie Business Failures’ by Jamie Oliver and Tony Goodwin is out on July 3.
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