Why Iceland? (2009)

 Why Iceland?: How One of the World’s Smallest Countries became the Meltdown’s Biggest Casualty (2009) is a book by Asgeir Jonsson, head of research and chief economist at Kaupthing Bank in Iceland. As the title suggests, the book deals with the collapse of Iceland in the face of the latest economic crisis. Accordimng to Jonsson, the impact of the crisis on Iceland has led to a “quiet transformation” of the society- a “Scandinavian-model economy” has replaced “free-wheeling Anglo Saxonian capitalism”, a “state-owned banking system” has been installed, and “capital controls” have been reinstated. Socially, “the consumption of Icelandic food is up, the birthrate is up, the sale of books has skyrocketed, theater tickets are selling in record numbers, and so on”. Iceland’s relationship with foreign countries has also changed, with Britain invoking terrorist laws against Icelandic banks, US not helping Iceland in the way some expected, and the (potential) role of the European Union being questioned within the country. (Click here to read a Business Week story about “the stunning collapse of Iceland“).
How did Iceland get into such a mess in the first place? After all, even until the 1980s, “Iceland’s economy revolved around little else than a semi-robust cod-fishing industry”. In the 1990s, however, Iceland turned its attention “from fish to finance”, adopted “Thatcherite, free-market reforms of Britain”, and became a “banking country”. By the time the global financial crisis started, Iceland’s banking system was more than 10 times its GDP. Then, as Jonsson describes it, “Iceland’s banks were taken down by a systemwide bank run that was touched off when the financial system lost the confidence of foreign creditors and analysts”, the central bank “could not serve a lender of last resort”, and “the state’s taxing power was also insufficient to provide bank support by recapitalizing the banks or guaranteeing their deposits abroad.” The result was that “a developed country…utterly collapse[d]”. [Click here to watch a video about “why Iceland is going broke” made in 2007 before the country actually collapsed!]

Jonsson’s book provides an in-depth analysis of how things in Iceland went from okay to boom to bust. His position at the Kaupthing Bank provided him an insider perspective of events and incidents. The fact that Jonsson is a native Icelander writing about his own country provides refreshingly different  insights into why and how things happened. Though it is tough to keep up with Icelandic names (!), I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book and recommend it to those interested in better understanding the dynamics and impact of the financial crisis.  As Jonsson warns us, “Iceland is not the anomaly that many would like it to be” and many countries that are “small” in size, with “large, internationally exposed banking sectors”, a currency “that is not a global reserve”, and “limited fiscal capacity” (think, Britain and Switzerland) may be vulnerable to “the twin menance of a currency and banking crisis, and the subsequent loss of confidence”.

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The Retail Revolution (2009)

TRRFirst God, then family, then Wal-Mart!”- The Retail Revolution: How Walmart created a brave new world of business (2009) by Professor Nelson Lichtenstein is an interesting book about Walmart, the lagest retailer worldwide.  Professor Lichtenstein is a professor of history and director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy at the University of California- Santa Barbara.    

The book is about 300 pages and covers a lot of ground. The (brief) first part of the book is about the creation of Walmart and how the idea of Walmart was rooted in Sam Walton’s earlier experiences. The second part of the book shifts towards discussing the ‘unethical-like’ practices at Walmart, especially with hiring and promotion of women, labor relations, and employee retention. The last part of the book is about Walmart’s relevance and ability to compete effectively in the new, 21st century, globalized world.

There is no dearth of books on Walmart, as one can imagine! The USP of Professor Lichtenstein’s book is that it is quite up-to-date (even provides some examples from after the current eceonomic crisis started), does a decent job discussing Walmart’s relationship with China, and describes events and stories in a reader-friendly fun style. It also spends only a little time discussing how Sam Walton created Walmart (a story that has been told many times before).   Students of business, particularly those who want to understand the retailing industry better, would benefit from reading this book.

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Category Killers (2005)

CKThe book Category Killers: The Retail Revolution and its Impact on Consumer Culture (2005) is by Robert Spector, a “a motivational keynote speaker and consultant on world class customer service”. The book discusses how many sleepy small towns in the US have become fertile grounds for large category killer stores. It also traces the rise of category killers when Charles Lazarus founded the first Toys R Us store in Washington DC. It concludes with an aptly-titled section “The winds of change for category killers” where he describes the forces of change that are threatening companies in this retailing niche.

Category killers, as Robert explains, “have dramatically altered our buying experience, becoming the most disruptive force in retailing- and everything else that retailing touches”. But, as a student asked me, what exactly are category killers? Robert provides a good description of these group of stores in his book- These stores have a “mammoth footprint- twenty thousand square feet to more than one hundred thousand square feet” and “specialize in a distinct classification of merchandise such as toys, office supplies, home improvement- while offering everyday low prices and wide and deep inventories”. They are called “category killers” because “their goal is to dominate the category and kill the competition- whether it be mom-and-pop stores, smaller regional chains, or general merchandise stores that can not compete on price and/or selection.”    

The book is certainly interesting to read! Almost everyone of us has shopped at one of the category killer stores at one point or another, but never really thought much about them. Robert’s writing style is entertaining and gentle as he takes the reader through a journey of this part of the retail industry. However, at some places I didn’t get why he said what he said. Consider the chapter title: “Paper clips in Portugal”. I don’t think the chapter ever explained the relevance of this title. But these are minor irritants in what is otherwise a book worth-reading.

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Inside Home Depot (1999)

IHDInside Home Depot: How one company revolutionized an industry through the relentless pursuit of growth (1999) is a book about, as the name suggests, Home Depot, the largest home improvement retailer in the country, and perhaps the world. The book is written by Chris Roush, a self-described “first-time author” and a professor at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (Professor Roush also mantains a regular blog that can be accessed by clicking here).

As Professor Roush describes on the first page of the first chapter, the book is “the story of Home Depot, the most succesful retailer to come along since Wal-Mart…, the story of a chain of stores that has arguably revolutionized its industry more than any other retailer…”. It is also a story “of two executives who made [Home Depot] happen”, … who “hit on a formula for success … never before tried in the hardware retail business.” It describes the history of Home Depot and how it became a leading player in its history.

The book is an unofficial version of the story of Home Depot, i.e., it is written without the cooperation of the founders of Home Depot- Arthur Blank and Bernie Marcus. In essence, the story of Home Depot is the story of Arthur and Bernie, so the book is really about Arthur and Bernie. As an unofficial version, I expected it to take a more critical look at Home Depot’s strategy (relentlessly pursuing growth via increasing the number of stores) or ethical issues (gender discrimination lawsuit) or culture (the Home Depot cult-like cheer). However, in all, I was impressed by the pleasant writing style in the book and the way it kept me engaged in the story from start to finish.

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On Target: How the World’s Hottest Retailer Hit a Bull’s Eye

OnTargetOnTarget: How the world’s hottest retailer hit a bull’s-eye (2003) by Laura Rowley is a book about Target, one of the largest retailers in the country.  Ms. Rowley has an interesting background- she is a former seminary student and a producer for CNN business news. It is this background, her desire to understand the “external world and the internal one”, that motivates her to start the book by remembering her interview with Edward Yardeni (chief economist at Deutsche Bank”) who told her: “Other countries have discovered that the meaning of life is shopping” (emphasis mine).

The book is divided into 11 chapters, which together provide a good overview of the history of Target, its present position in the industry, and what makes Target a unique company in a business dominated by a 800-pound Gorrilla (read Walmart!).  It does a good job reviewing the early days of Target and “the legend of George Draper Dayton“, the founder of Dayton’s Dry Goods Company, the precursor to Target. George Dayton belonged to “a long line of pioneers” and counted among others “Jonathan Dayton, the youngest signor of the U.S. constitution and the namesake for Dayton, Ohio”.

Ms. Rowley’s book is written in an interesting style. After every chapter she has a “check out” aisle where she provides a brief summary of points that she thinks makes Target special. I can’t really say I particularly liked this “check out” section, and in a way I am not sure how it helps the reader, except in the sense of providing a sort of summary to the chapter. I did like, however, that the last chapter in Ms. Rowley’s book is about “challenges” that Target is likely to face in the first decade of the new century. Of course, the decade is now about over and the challenges Target faces are from over.

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The Plot to Get Bill Gates (1999)

TPTGBGThe Plot to Get Bill Gates: An Irreverent Investigation of the World’s Richest Man … and the People Who Hate Him (1999) is a book by Gary Rivlin. The book is not only about Bill Gates and how he created the world’s largest fortune, it is also about the “other sovereigns” (computer industry entrepreneurs) who wanted to and tried to “get” Bill Gates. In Rivlin’s own words, his book is  “a fun, warts and all look at the World’s Richest Man and the corporate titans who, despite their age and all the’ve accomplished, become teen-boy-like obsessed with proving themselves bigger, better, or smarter than Gates.”

So, who are these corporate titans who desperately tried, but ultimately failed, to unseat Bill Gates. Rivlin discusses Jim Manzi of Lotus and Phillipe Kahn of Borland in the 1980s, Ray Noorda of Novell, Larry Ellison of Oracle, and Scott McNealy of Sun in the 1990s. By the turn of the century, Gates was so successful, so dominant, and so rich that he was outside the reach of most (if not all!) business tycoons. And, then of course, there was the US Government and the EU who went after Microsoft and Bill Gates, but ultimately had to back down. Rivlin himself seems to be no Gates fan either, as is description on Gates suggests:

Gates “voice is a high-pitched whistle that teteers on the edge of whininess, giving his talks a pleading, almost desperate sound. He speaks with a forced enthusiasm, tinny and false, and exudes no warmth, humor, or personality, despite hours of sessions with a speach coach. His one asset on stage, other than his fame, is his ample memory. He never fails to touch each of his talking points.”

This book is certainly an interesting read. At 342 pages it may be considered somewhat long, but what makes it particularly engaging is the description of “behind-the-scenes’ strategies and tactics that were employed by companies as they competed to dominate the computer industry. So many of the entrepreneurs, chief executives, and business tycoons who thought they could out-maneuvere Bill Gates have been relegated to the footnotes of history. For people who like to understand how things came to be the way they did, this is a great book!

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Bill Gates (2000)

BGBill Gates : Genius of the software revolution and master of the information age (2000) is a short book about Microsoft Chairman and World’s Richest Person William Henry Gates III (or Bill Gates) by Robert Heller. This book is part of the Business Masterminds series of books. Unlike most other books on Bill Gates, the purpose of this book is to present a simple story about the world’s richest person, a self-made multi-billionaire. The book is dividing into 5, nay 6, sections. The book starts with ashort summary chapter on Bill Gates, which is followed by 5 chapters: (1) IT changes absolutely everything, (2) Building a knowledge economy, (3) Developing software that sells, (4) Dividing, delegating, and leading, (5) Turning vision into value. It acknowledges Bill Gates, and by extension Microsoft’s, strengths- “Creating the industry standard”, and its weaknesses- inability to predict “the all encompassing future of the internet”.

According to Heller, Gates is “an engaging, bespectacled, highly intelligent and articulate man, physically restless and with great mental agility…He reads voluminously, even in odd moments, specializes in multi-tasking (doing many things at once”, and somehow contrives to give the running of Microsoft his full attention, while also spending much time on public relations.” Heller also notes that Gates “appears to have no outside interests other than his family, his Porches and his magnificent, technology-crammed lakeside mansion in Medini, Washington”. Heller acknowledges that Gates’ “predictive powers, however, have often failed him, most notably…the omission of the Internet from the first edition of the The Road Ahead.”   

Bill Gates is certainly a popular subject for writers and makes for an interesting book story. So, the question is what makes Robert Heller’s book worth reading? Why should someone take the time to read this book about Bill Gates? I think this book is most appropriate for an audience who has never read any book or in-depth article about Bill Gates. People who have read other, more comprehensive books about Bill Gates are unlikely to find much (perhaps any!) new information or story in this book. But those who have never read anything about Bill Gates outside of what is printed in newspapers or appears on TV are likely to find this book useful to get a better understanding of the man “whose actions have spoken louder than words in making him both prime mover and chief figurehead of the Age of Information.”

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