The Greatest Business Decisions of All Time (2012) is a flatfooted anthology of 18 engaging—and oversimplified—business stories that influenced the course of business. Edited by management consultant Verne Harnish, this tome contains long articles by nine Fortune magazine journalists.
- Apple and the Return of Steve Jobs. The 1996 decision by Apple’s board of directors to bring back Jobs revived the company, transformed the consumer electronics industry, and made Apple one of the most valuable companies in the world.
- Zappos and Free Shipping. Zappos’s decision to offer free shipping and 365-day free returns lured more mainstream buyers onto the internet. Other retailers had no choice but to provide free shipping (albeit with some restrictions) and absorb the costs.
- Samsung and Global Immersion. In the early 1990s, Chairman Lee Kun-Hee instituted a policy to send his brightest young employees on international sabbaticals that exposed them to the local cultures and build business networks. This program later fuelled Samsung’s global ambitions.
- Johnson & Johnson and the Tylenol Comeback. Consistent with the company’s “patients come before profit” credo, CEO James E. Burke set the benchmark for crisis management when he decided to pull Tylenol off the shelves nationwide and create a tamper-proof bottle at the cost of $100 million. Johnson & Johnson cemented its reputation for responsible management.
- 3M’s 15% Free Time Rule and Innovation. 3M Company CEO William McKnight’s extraordinary idea of giving employees free time for “experimental doodling” yielded such innovative products as Post-It notes. 3M quickly diversified its portfolio and entered many consumer- and industrial-businesses. 3M inspired Google’s 20% rule.
- The “Intel Inside” Marketing Campaign. To forestall the commoditization of the computer chip, CEO Andy Grove shifted Intel’s image from that of a microprocessor company to that of a producer of a coveted, brand-name product that stood for performance. Intel became a household name that consumers sought when they purchased a computer.
- General Electric’s Jack Welch and Crotonville. Welch transformed GE’s sprawling management-training institute in Crotonville, New York, into a focal point of learning for the company.
- Bill Gates and His “Think Weeks.” The Microsoft founder’s twice-yearly retreat in rural isolation allowed him to read, reflect, and map out ideas—away from the distractions and the noise of business life.
- Softsoap and Impeding Competition. A small Minnesota company called Minnetonka Corp. developed liquid hand soap in the early 1980s. When Softsoap started flying off the shelves, deep-pocked behemoths like Procter & Gamble began to prototype their own variants. Minnetonka’s CEO Robert Taylor developed a smart strategy to block his giant competitors and keep his company’s market share. He purchased the entire U.S. supply of plastic pumps used in the liquid soap bottles for one year—that’s 100 million units from the only supplier. By the time his competitors had access to the plastic pumps, Taylor’s Softsoap’s brand was well established.
- Toyota and the Quality Revolution. Toyota’s institutional obsession with waste-reduction, zero defects, and process improvement has transformed manufacturing and inspired excellence in every service industry—including hospitals.
- Nordstrom and Customer Service Excellence. Nordstrom built its brand on “above-and-beyond” customer service and problem-solving. The entirety of the Nordstrom Employee Handbook fits on a 5×8 card and contains precisely one rule, “Use the best judgment in all situations. There will be no additional rules.”
- Tata Steel and Labor Relations. During a turbulent period of India’s leading steelmaker, Managing Director Jamshed J Irani confronted a bloated cost structure by reducing his 78,000-strong workforce to 40,000 by 2005. In keeping with the Tata Group’s rich philanthropic legacy, Irani offered decent pension plans and invested in labor welfare.
- Boeing 707 and the Jet Age. Boeing’s decision to develop the Boeing 707 at the cost of $185 million (more than the company’s market capitalization) “remade a company, an industry, and the very culture of its time.” The 707 was the first transatlantic commercial jetliner in an era of prop planes. It kicked off the Jet Age, revolutionized air travel, and established Boeing as a dominant airliner manufacturer.
- IBM and the Customer-Centric Makeover. In 1993, Lou Gerstner became CEO and embarked on an “Operation Bear Hug” to launch new communication pipelines between top executives and IBM’s customers. This helped transform IBM from an inwardly focused bureaucracy to a customer-centric market-driven innovator.
- Sam Walton and Walmart’s Saturday Morning Meeting. Walton’s energetic 6:00 A.M. meeting was a pep rally, merchandising workshop, and financial update—all rolled into one. He brainstormed with his store managers on how to improve things week after week and helped metamorphose Walmart from a single, small-town variety store in 1962 into the world’s largest retailer.
- Eli Whitney and the Dawn of American Technology. Whitney’s invention of the “saw gin” that worked well with short-staple cotton helped transform Southern agriculture (and sustain the institution of African slavery!) Whitney then popularized the use of interchangeable parts in making firearms.
- Bill Hewlett and David Packard and the “HP Way.” The essence of Hewlett-Packard’s management philosophy was an openness and respect for the employees. With a framework of principles and the simplicity of their management methods, they established many progressive management practices that prevail even today.
- Henry Ford and the Factory- and Wage-Revolution. When Ford introduced the moving assembly line, his fledging factory was confronting a dispirited workforce, declining workmanship and quality, absenteeism, and annual labor turnover of 370 percent. Then Ford decided to raise wages from $2.50 to $5 a day. The following week, Ford Motors had more than 26,000 job applicants. Ford increased production rates and slashed the per-unit cost of the Model T. Annual labor turnover fell to 16 percent, and Ford’s profits doubled within two years. Every time Ford increased the productivity of car production, he continued to raise wages. His well-paid workers had more to spend—and could afford the very cars they built.
Recommended: Quick read. The Greatest Business Decisions of All Time is a concise and entertaining read, especially if you like getting into heads, the thoughts, and the motivations of well-known business luminaries. The 18 case studies lack rigor and are beset with recency biases, narrative fallacies, and a misplaced sense of causes and effects. Some stories, e.g., the Softsoap one, aren’t well known.
Daniel Gross’s Forbes Greatest Business Stories of All Time (1997) is significantly more engrossing and instructional.