Business Book(s) of the Year

There were a ton of books on the financial crisis, many of which were quite good. My favorite came from the Financial Times' prize-winning reporter–editorialist Gillian Tett. Namely: Fool's Gold: How the Bold Dream of a Small Tribe at J.P. Morgan Was Corrupted by Wall Street Greed and Unleashed a Catastrophe. (Hats off to the FT in general for reporting on the crisis—my FT "take" beats my Wall Street Journal take 4 days out of every 5.) (Ms. Tett notwithstanding, I believe the best way to get your reading head around the current mess is to read Michael Lewis's 1989 classic, Liar's Poker.)

As to best book by a "finance guy," it's no contest! The gold to Vanguard Mutual Fund Group founder John Bogle for Enough. The chapter titles tell the story. Here's a sample:

"Too Much Cost, Not Enough Value"
"Too Much Speculation, Not Enough Investment"
"Too Much Complexity, Not Enough Simplicity"
"Too Much Counting, Not Enough Trust"
"Too Much Business Conduct, Not Enough Professional Conduct"
"Too Much Salesmanship, Not Enough Stewardship"
"Too Much Focus on Things, Not Enough Focus on Commitment"
"Too Many Twenty-first Century Values, Not Enough Eighteenth-Century Values"
"Too Much 'Success,' Not Enough Character"

As to the overarching theme of the book, Mr. Bogle begins with this vignette: "At a party given by a billionaire on Shelter Island, Kurt Vonnegut informs his pal, Joseph Heller, that their host, a hedge fund manager, had made more money in a single day than Heller had earned from his wildly popular novel Catch-22 over its whole history. Heller responds, 'Yes, but I have something he will never have ...
enough.'"

My "best management book" award goes to my old pal (pal = full disclosure) and Fast Company co-founder Alan Webber for Rules of Thumb: 52 Truths for Winning at Business Without Losing Yourself. From the beginning ("Rule #1: When the going gets tough, the tough relax") to the middle ("Rule #26: The soft stuff is the hard stuff") to the end ("Rule #52: Stay alert! There are teachers everywhere"), Alan doesn't miss a single beat in 52 tries. My runner-up, by a heartbeat, in the management book category is The Cost of Bad Behavior: How Incivility Is Damaging Your Business and What to Do About It, by Christine Pearson and Christine Porath. Decent behavior pays off, big time, and never more than in tough times—this is not a "be good" book, it's a "make money" book.

Now, to the Grand Prize Winner, my "Best Business Book 2009." The Gold goes with delight to retail guru George Whalin for Retail Superstars: Inside the 25 Best Independent Stores in America. Mr. Whalin is our tour guide to Excellence, and his first stop is, naturally, Fairfield, Ohio, home to Jungle Jim's International Market. The adventure in "shoppertainment," as Jungle Jim's calls it, begins in the parking lot and goes on to 1,600 cheeses and, yes, 1,400 varieties of hot sauce—not to mention 12,000 wines priced from $8 to $8,000 a bottle; all this is brought to you by 4,000 vendors from around the world. Like virtually all the stores in this book, customers flock to the doors from every corner of the globe. Then there's Abt Electronics in Chicago, Zabar's in Manhattan, and Bronner's Christmas Wonderland in Frakenmuth, Michigan—a town of just 5,000. Bronner's 98,000-square-foot "shop" features the likes of 6,000 Christmas ornaments, 50,000 trims, and anything else you can name if it pertains to Christmas.

And: The Ron Jon Surf Shop in Cocoa Beach, Florida.
And: Junkman's Daughter in Atlanta.
And: Smoky Mountain Knife Works in Sevierville, Tennessee.
And: the grand finale, finishing where we started—in Ohio; This time the spotlight is on Hartville Hardware in Hartville OH.

George Whalin's winning stores demonstrate–prove so many (heartening) things:

You can create a worldwide attraction and thrive as an independent in the Age of the Big Box retailer!
You can do anything!
You can be from anywhere!
You can make any-damn-thing ... bizarrely-amazingly-stupendously-special!

I think Whalin's message is perfect for 2009. We will, over the long haul, rebound from our colossal economic and unemployment mess on the backs of our entrepreneurs. The big guys may re-stock their payrolls a bit, but the generals, GE and GM, ain't the answer. And among the entrepreneurs, only a few, statistically, will be from Silicon Valley. To be sure, the best of the sexy entrepreneurs spawn whole new industries, but the blocking and tackling when it comes to jobs and productivity will come from Sevierville TN and Fairfield and Hartville OH and Frankenmuth MI and a hundred hundred other towns and small cities whose names, mostly, you haven't heard of.

When I initially blogged about Retail Superstars, I said, "I guarantee that any reader—from anywhere, in any business—can learn something from this book." I believe that. And because of that, Mr. Whalin takes home the Gold. (FYI: A great companion to Retail Superstars is Bo Burlingham's 2005 Small Giants: Companies that Choose to be Great Instead of Big.)

And so it goes ...