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June 05, 2007

Harry Phibbs finally finds a book about how to succeed in business which is written in English rather than jargon and feels like dancing a jig: The Maverick: Dispatches from an unrepentant capitalist - Luke Johnson

Posted by Harry Phibbs

The Maverick: Dispatches from an unrepentant capitalist
by Luke Johnson
Pp. 256. Petersfield: Harriman House, 2007
Hardback, 14.99

It has often been reflected that capitalists are feeble advocates for capitalism - either they like to keep out of politics or those who do get involved tend to be those with corporatist leanings whose fingers itch to meddle with markets - a subsidy here, a trade tariff there, a new regulation in the other place. Robert Maxwell was earlier a Labour MP. But even businessmen who have pursued their careers as Conservatives, such as Michael Heseltine, often have precious little faith in the free market.

For the vast majority of businessmen who don't engage in politics there is even less desire to pitch in and defend capitalism. No company would dream of putting "to make profits for the shareholders" in its Mission Statement.
But Luke Johnson is different. As a businessman he is Chairman of Channel 4, owner or co-owner of the Fish Works, Giraffe and Pattisserie Valerie restaurant groups and previously of Pizza Express. Among other sectors he has owned companies in recruitment, dentistry and retailing. But as readers of this book will discover, far more to the point is the fact that he is the son of historian Paul Johnson. A chip off the old block. It jumps out of each page.

Luke has inherited not only the ability to write well and a sense of historical perspective but also to marshal an argument and to grasp the essence of the subject.

This book is a collection of articles from the business pages of the Sunday Telegraph and it is excellent news that this work has been preserved for posterity rather than lost as transient journalism. Reading a book about how to succeed in business or management written in English rather than jargon comes as such a relief that I felt like dancing a jig.

One of the articles reproduced in this collection is on the perils of
management speak. Johnson says:

Using fresh, vigorous language in the spoken and written form is not easy and it takes practice. Executives don't have to be masters of English literature. But when you can read dozens of job advertisements every week in the Guardian for public sector posts and it's unclear what any of the applicants are meant to do as work - then you see the dangers of sloppy language. Executives need to be constantly on the look out for cant, because it probably indicates chicanery. As Ecclesiasticus said:

"Let thy speech be short, comprehending much in a few words."

After all the really significant insights are rare and generally take little explaining.

Certain departments within organisations produce more than their fair share of incomprehensible words and phrases. The IT specialists are the worst, closely followed by the marketing division and the personnel people. Using code is a way for them to take their careers more seriously and get an edge over other departments.

Well aimed mockery is a feature of the material written for this book.

But it has not just been created for fun. Johnson says:

A great many writers and commentators are anti business or left of centre in their political views. This bias arises because writers and journalists tend to come from the arts rather than from commercial backgrounds, and are dubious about the profit motive. Others are from academia, a segment of society heavily divorced from the worlds of industry and finance, and which is mostly dependent upon the state for funding. So by putting pen to paper on a weekly basis I helped correct that distortion just a little.
I was pleased to discover from this book that one problem I have often noticed has been encapsulated as a business maxim. It is the Peter Principle:
In every hierarchy, ever employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence. The theory was invented by Dr Laurence J Peter to describe human behaviour inside organisations. For example, great sales people are frequently promoted to manager, where they can't use their sales skills, and where they need people management skills - which they often lack.
Some articles consist of lists: what to look for in a company when buying shares; what to avoid; the different characteristics of an entrepreneur and a corporate executive; or what the rich spend their money on. Quirky subjects are also included such as trophy wives and the portrayal of businessmen in fiction.

Read how Mr Heinz got into trouble with his first condiments business by buying too many cucumbers. Or how forestry could be a good investment as well as beneficial for the environment.

Johnson also has a self deprecatory streak. Writing about Gresham's Law he says:

Some misguided persons have asserted it applies to the world of television, as regards the popularity of reality TV shows etc. This suggestion is entirely without merit.
Elsewhere he says:
Going to a home with butlers and cooks feels like walking onto the film set for an Edwardian melodrama. It's far more relaxing to dine out in a decent restaurant.
There's the voice of a Chairman of a TV station and multi-millionaire restaurateur.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist.


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