As an avid reader, I try to glean at least some business–and public relations–knowledge from virtually every book I pick up. Recently I read three books that deal directly with business in three distinctly different ways. One is the story of a wild successful businessman who is literally giving away his vast fortune; another stars one of the world’s most famous people, an inventor who never really capitalized on his fame; and the third covers one of the world’s most innovative companies and how it trains, manages, and retains employees. Each of these books has added something to my business and public relations arsenal, and I highly recommend each.
The Billionaire Who Wasn’t: How Chuck Feeney Made and Gave Away a Fortune Without Anyone Knowing by Conor O’Clery.
Next time you’re in an international airport, stop for a moment in front of the duty-free shop and marvel. The concept has made many men rich and at least one of them decided long ago to give it all back. The Billionaire Who Wasn’t is the life story of Chuck Feeney, a working-class Irish Catholic kid from New Jersey who would become one of the world’s richest men. He also would transform himself into one of the world’s leading philanthropists, so quietly that until recently many people believed he was sunning his days away on a yacht.
After a stint in the Air Force, Feeney attended Cornell University’s now famed School of Hotel Administration–it was derided at the time–and learned customer service. After graduation, he went to Europe and eventually launched a business to sell duty-free goods–everything from cars to liquors–to American servicemen. The idea took off and the business eventually evolved into Duty Free Shoppers (DFS), making Feeney and his partners wealthy beyond their wildest dreams.
Feeney and his partners sold DFS in 1996, with Feeney receiving a $1.67 billion check for his almost 40 percent stake. Twelve years earlier, however, Feeney had decided that he didn’t need that much money. He had set up a charity, the Atlantic Philanthropies, and began plowing his DFS payout and other investment profits into it.
Over the past 24 years, Feeney has given away more than $4 billion to various charities, organizations and causes, and for years operated under the radar because he simply wanted to give without having to eat rubber chicken dinners and be lauded for doing something that he felt was the right thing. His foundation has built hospitals and housing, and it still has another $4 billion to give away by 2016, the year that Feeney wants the money exhausted. Unfortunately Feeney’s investments keep making money.
Feeney’s story is truly extraordinary and the potential public relations lessons are strewn across the book’s simple retelling of the man’s achievements. The unconventional start to DFS, the near collapse of the business, the infighting surrounding the sale, and Feeney’s secret philanthropy all have something teach PR reps.
O’Clery clearly has great respect for Feeney–the philanthropist decided to cooperate with the author–and the book sometimes comes off as love letter. Nonetheless, Feeney is someone worthy of respect, to say nothing of the few nights it will take to read the book.
The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World by Randall Stross
Late one night a few months ago, I watched the movie Edison, The Man, starring Spencer Tracy as the world’s most famous inventor. The 1940 film uses flashbacks to recount Edison’s story, including his eureka moments with the light bulb and phonograph. The movie, along with childhood reading, was pretty much all I knew about Edison.
Randall Stross’ new biography on Edison probably isn’t the best book about “The Wizard of Menlo Park,” but serves as a good primer. Stross delves into the celebrity of Edison and how he handled it. He examines some of Edison’s inventions. (He gets too much credit and too little credit, depending on the invention.) And most important, he identifies Edison’s key weakness: The man knew nothing about business, and was stubbornly proud about it.
My respect for Edison decreased significantly after reading The Wizard of Menlo Park as his facade crumbled. Edison didn’t want to mass-market the phonograph as a music listening device because he was very nearly deaf and complained constantly about the song quality; he felt that the device was best suited for office dictation and little else.
Edison constantly started and stopped work on inventions, rarely seeing anything to completion. He set up companies, watched them fail, and cared little. He essentially gave away General Electric, now one of the world’s largest companies, without batting an eye. And Edison the husband and father was pretty much absent, toiling away in the lab on projects that rarely came to fruition.
There is no doubt that Edison was a genius and that he thought “outside of the box.” He smartly cultivated his celebrity and manipulated the media, a public relations master ahead of his time. And although he lost out on millions–billions in today’s money–he was still a rich man. Nonetheless, Edison’s story is one of missed opportunities, about how stubbornness gets in the way of innovation, an amazing irony considering Edison’s legacy.
Toyota Culture: The Heart and Soul of the Toyota Way by Jeffrey Liker and Michael Hoseus
In America, businesses send their elite executives for training at General Electric’s in-house management school. Worldwide, however, Japanese automaker Toyota is the gold standard for management and manufacturing excellence.
University of Michigan Professor Dr. Jeffrey Liker has been studying Toyota for years and he’s written a number of books on the company, including the best-seller The Toyota Way. Joined by former Toyota executive Michael Hoseus, Liker examines what is essentially Toyota’s human resources philosophy.
At Toyota, struggling employees are helped and mentored, not threatened and fired. Input is solicited from the highest rungs of management to the lowest rungs of production. Communication is emphasized and training is imperative. Toyota wants its employees to be happy and productive, and it wants them to learn and grow on the job.
The back cover of the book says that you will learn “Toyota’s proven system for investing in people,” and you will. The authors have seemingly unfettered access to Toyota’s offices, facilities, and employees, and anecdotes illustrate how the “Toyota Way” is implemented every day. As Toyota has expanded around the world, some of the guiding principles behind the “Toyota Way” have not translated well. The company is working hard to solve the problem through training, hoping to break down provincial barriers. I don’t doubt that they will eventually succeed.
Even executives in the public relations industry have examined Toyota for years and tried to use various pieces of the “Toyota Way” in their own business plans. Some do betters than others, which suggests that the “Toyota Way” is often an all-or-nothing gambit. What’s amazing, however, is that so much of the “Toyota Way” is what many people would deem simple common sense. It just needs to be applied daily, a consistency many in the public relations industry are unfortunately incapable of pulling off. Perhaps after reading about the “Toyota Way” public relations firms will change their ways. We can always hope!
This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.