Business Stories

We’ve talked before here about the point that most fiction seems to be about people who are lawyers, policemen, criminals, soldiers, spies, students, politicians, and noble but struggling writers. But there are indeed some works of fiction, and some vivid personal memoirs, in which business plays a central role without being portrayed simplistically or as stereotypically evil. Here are some that I like…please add your own favorites in the comments.  (I posted this at Ricochet, in slightly different form, about a week ago)

The Current War, a recent movie about the late-1800s power struggle to determine which technology…AC or DC…will dominate America’s electrical distribution system. Edison, Westinghouse, and Tesla are the key characters, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon, and Nicholas Hoult respectively. My review is here.

The Big Short, a 2015 film about the 2007-2008 financial crisis, based on Michael Lewis’s book. A hedge fund manager concludes that the subprime-loan market is not sustainable, and makes a billion-dollar bet against the relevant mortgage-backed securities. Based on real events. I thought it was very well done.

God is an Englishman, R F Delderfield. Following his return to England from the Crimean War, Adam Swann identifies a business opportunity: although railroads are being built throughout the country, there will always be sources and destinations of freight which are not on the tracks. Hence, the potential for a nationwide gap-filling road haulage business based on the systematic use of horse-drawn wagons. (This is the first book of a three-book series called the Swann Family Saga.)  Reviewed here.

Oil for the Lamps of China, Alice Tisdale Hobart. This 1933 novel is about a young American working as a sales rep in China, focused on selling oil for his employer (unnamed, but clearly based on Standard Oil) and increasing volumes by promoting the kerosene lamp as a better alternative to traditional lighting methods. The book was the basis for a 1935 movie of the same name…the film has its moments, but overall is not worthy of the book.

Father, Son, and Company, by Thomas Watson Jr. This is the best business autobiography I’ve read. It’s about Watson Jr (the long-time CEO of IBM), his difficult relationship with his father, the company they built, and the emergence of the computing industry. It is an emotional, reflective, and self-critical book, without the kind of “here’s how brilliant I was” tone that afflicts too many executive autobiographies. I reviewed it here.

A Man in Full, by Tom Wolfe. The central character of this 1988 novel is Charlie Croker, an Atlanta real-estate developer who has gotten himself into way too much debt. Other characters include Charlie’s current and former wives, the Black mayor of Atlanta, the bankers who must deal with the debt problem, and a warehouse worker at one of the Croker enterprises. The book also casts a not-very-complimentary light on the Atlanta society/arts scene.

Trial by Fire, Stephen Buck. The adventures of a Honeywell field engineer in the early days of process-control computing. The book’s title reflects the point that the industrial processes being controlled frequently involved combustion, sometimes in scary circumstances. Much of the author’s work took place outside the US, in countries ranging from Poland to Brazil.


Herman the German, Gerhard Neumann. This is the autobiography of a man who was born to a Jewish family in Germany, apprenticed as an auto mechanic, attended engineering school, moved to China in 1938, was interned by the British as an enemy alien in 1939, transferred to the American forces, joined Claire Chennault’s Flying Tigers, repaired the first Japanese Zero fighter to be captured in potentially-flyable condition, became a U.S. citizen by special act of Congress, and went on to run GE’s entire jet engine business, which he played a major role in creating. (The preceding may be the longest single sentence I’ve ever written in a blog post.) I reviewed here.

Nice Work, David Lodge. What happens when an expert on 19th-century British industrial novels—who is a professor, a feminist, and a deconstructionist–finds herself in an actual factory? This not being a time-travel novel, the factory is a contemporary one for the book’s setting in mid-1980s Britain. It is a metalworking plant called Pringle’s, run by managing director Vic Wilcox. Vic is not thrilled when his boss (Pringle’s is owned by a conglomerate) suggests that he participate in something called the “shadow” program, designed to make academics and businesspeople better-acquainted with one another, but he goes along with the request. Robyn Penrose, literature professor at a nearby university, is also not thrilled about her nomination to participate in the program, but she is concerned about her job in an era of reduced university funding, and also thinks she had better do as asked.

I reviewed the book here.

No Highway, Neville Shute. A scientist determines that a new airplane model will suffer metal fatigue much earlier than had been thought, but is unable to convince his management. The author was himself an aircraft designer and co-founder of an aircraft company. The book was turned into a 1951 movie, No Highway in the Sky.  (Just a few years later, the de Havilland Comet–the first commercial jetliner–would suffer two catastrophic crashes due to metal fatigue.)

Titan American Built, a documentary series about American manufacturing. “The stakes are high, the metals are hard, and failure is not an option,” as this review notes. Producer Titan Gilroy, a former boxer, is a strong advocate of American manufacturing and has an academy focused on bringing CNC skills to a wider range of people.

North and South, an 1854 novel by Elizabeth Gaskell, which is not about the American Civil War, but about the north and south of England at the time of the industrial revolution. A clergyman must abandon his career and leave his pleasant parsonage for reasons of conscience, and moves to an industrial city in the north. His daughter meets a millowner, who she initially dislikes, but a mutual attraction soon develops.

A very good TV series based on the novel is available on Netflix.

CEO, Sandra Kurtzig.  The author built a very small computer-services business into one of the first large independent application software companies, focused on manufacturing applications and attaining an annual revenue of $400MM.  Much more recently, she formed a new cloud-based manufacturing applications company, Kenandy.

The Dwelling Place of Light, Winston Churchill. This strange but interesting 1917 novel (by the other Churchill, the once-well-known American writer) is about a New England town, a textile mill and its manager, and the girl–daughter of an old family whose circumstances have declined–who becomes his secretary. Here’s a review from the novel’s initial publication.

Your suggestions?

8 thoughts on “Business Stories”

  1. Before John D. McDonald started writing Travis McGee he wrote a few business based novels. One I remember was “A Man of Affairs”, “Condominium” had an engineer as a protagonist. He had a Harvard MBA.

    The history of Standard in China is something that’s largely forgotten now as is the beginning of the oil business as a supplier of light with the development of lubricants and fuels coming after. I think I remember reading that at one time, Standard was a major importer of china from China in exchange for their kerosene.

  2. We’ve talked before here about the point that most fiction seems to be about people who are lawyers, policemen, criminals, soldiers, spies, students, politicians, and noble but struggling writers.

    For obvious reasons: these are the people who are themselves most involved in generating, promulgating, and/or believing fiction. Soldiers being the exception here. And there are struggling writers, but I suspect noble ones are thin on the ground indeed.

  3. I have since finished the book (The Current War. My main complaint about it is… “so what?”

    That’s my feel for it. In the end, I wasn’t made to care that much about the subject. It has an interest as a historical thing, and certainly had a major effect on all of us, but it does not manage to translate that to the reader any more than the movie did to the viewer.

    And I say that as a former physics major, math major and computer major — a natural-born nerd-geek with an interest in stuff like that.

    If they can’t sweep me up in it, it feels like a failure of epic proportions. The movie, and the book, are both pretty and interesting, but lack some je ne ses qois

  4. I have read several of those on David’s list, including Neville Shute, my favorite novelist. My all time favorite, and one that I gave a copy of to each of my daughters, is “A Town Like Alice.” It is really two stories. One is a World War II story of prisoners of the Japanese, which is based on a true story. The second is about a post war Australia in which a young woman starts a business in an outback town.

    I am currently reading a series of novels by a man named Andrew Wareham who was a teacher of History of Economics in Britain and a ten year history as a policemen in Papua New Guinea.
    He has a series of novels about the British Navy and the British Army. The series about the Navy is similar to the novels of CS Forrester. Those about the Army are similar to those of Bernard Cornwell. What is different is his series about two young men who begin as a mixed race freeman in Antigua and a young Brit who is a hand on a privateer in the War of American Independence. They go back to England as partners and become wealthy in industry as the Industrial Revolution is getting going. Lots of information about the social world in Britain at the Regency Period. Also lots about how steam engines and coal mines affected society.

    He has another series about the RFC in WWI and a new series about the RAF in WWII that he is working on now. Excellent research. I keep looking up details from the books and all are correct.

  5. Three books that are not biographies of individuals, but rather of companies or of projects:

    –American Steel, by Richard Preston. The early days of Nucor Steel, when they were pioneering the continuous-casting process.

    –The Soul of a New Machine, by Tracy Kidder. A 1981 project at a then-significant company called Data General to develop a new minicomputer…actually, this was one of *two* projects to develop a product for this niche at the same company, and not the one that was getting the majority of the attention or resources.

    –Riding the Runaway Horse, by Charles Kenney. The rise and the catastrophic fall of Wang Laboratories, once a leader in the field of word processing systems.

  6. These are great traditional “mysteries” with a sleuth who is NOT a lawyer, British aristocrat, hard-bitten PI, etc, but a vice president of a merchant bank.

    Nearly all the Dick Francis mysteries delve into some intersection between horse races and some other business — wine selling, small air transportation, railway management … one intersection IS a hard-bitten detective who was formerly a jockey but still:

  7. I started A Man In Full and felt certain that Wolfe had captured his characters very well, and the conflicts they were all getting dragged into seemed quite plausible. Unfortunately, I couldn’t care less what happened to any of them and stopped reading. I remembered that this had been true for me with Wolfe before. I suppose his accuracy in creating characters who are neither all good nor all bad works against him sometimes, as we don’t have a rooting interest.

    I may give the Delderfield series to one or both of my older sons.

  8. Beware of anything Tom Watson Jr. says. Like Walter Duranty and his father Tom Sr, Tom Jr was a believer in the inevitability and greatness of the Soviet. This is the man who as our Soviet Ambassador (literally) brought us the endless Afghanistan wars. Most everything in the book is rationalizing how things turned out.

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