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My Book Reviews

Category: Business strategy
Published: 1999
Read: 2004
Reviewed: Sep 2009

This book carries 15 case studies of former industry leaders and details the strategic blunders which led to each of their demise. Some of the companies profiled (and their blunders) are: W.R. Grace (the blunder of nonstrategic expansion), Drexel Burnham (the blunder of isolation), E.J. Korvette (the blunder of hubris), Kaiser-Frazer (the blunder of ignorance), RCA (the blunder of nepotism), Schwinn (multiple blunders), Packard, Schlitz and Pabst, James Ling, The Penn Central, Montgomery Ward, American Tobacco, Osborne Computer, and The New York Stock Exchange. The book was written in 1999, but because many of the companies are historical, it feels much older (the clinical writing style contributes to this feeling). Some readers may feel detached from the book's lessons because they feel like they can't relate to older companies that they have never heard of. Although these readers would prefer to read about contemporary companies, there is no benefit to doing so because the business lessons presented here were chosen because they are timeless problems (which is precisely the whole point of profiling older companies). You can count on these mistakes being made in business until the end of time (for example, why did EBay buy Skype?). Some readers were also bothered that the author doesn't provide any solutions, but this is a book about prevention, not solutions.

Another good thing about the "aged" profiles (and the best thing about the book) is that the profiling of now-defunct former market leaders causes the reader to get a little philosophical and ponder the long-term view of a company's strategy. This is something many investors (even long-term investors) don't do because buy-and-hold investing has always been marketed as a "set-it-and-forget-it" strategy. After reading this book, some investors may ask themselves forward-looking questions like: "Will Microsoft be chronicled in a book like this 20 years from now as a fallen giant because they ignored open-source software or software-as-a-service?", "Will Hewlett Packard be stubborn and lose market share to a competitor who comes along and is willing to take lower margins on over-priced ink cartridges?" These scenarios seem improbable today but that it exactly why those types of questions should be asked.

Another great thing about the book is that it shows the negative long-term effects of having a corporate culture which lacks innovation. When you look at the changes that the old media and the cable companies are going through now with customers abandoning them for internet sites like Hulu, this book helps stimulate your imagination about how things can play out.

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