Most Valuable Players 1991

Tom Peters

Though a double-dip recession seems a certainty, and slow global growth likely, resilient stars are coping with the turmoil. Hence my Seventh Annual Most Valuable Player Awards.

* Most Valuable Player. Asea Brown Boveri CEO Percy Barnevik walks away with the prize. No one is more bold or better prepared for a more- or less-united Europe at year’s end 1992. Barnevik has stripped away red tape with such determination that he makes even bureaucracy-basher Jack Welch of GE look timid. He’s also unleashed enormous small-unit entrepreneurial zeal in a global $30-billion heavy-industrial firm—IBM CEO John Akers, eat your heart out.

* Most Valuable Company. The nod here goes to information-systems giant EDS. Despite the tentacles of parent GM, EDS has stayed sprightly and is making a ton of money. The $6.3-billion, 62,000-person outfit defines big professional service firm—in an age where professional service firms will be the best corporate models for those who ply their trade in chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and financial services alike.

* Most Valuable Entrepreneur. T.J. Rodgers takes the gold. Cypress Semiconductor now racks up almost $300 million in annual revenue, but is as feisty as ever. It sometimes seems that founder and CEO Rodgers is the lone high-tech CEO championing unfettered market forces and rejecting all manner of government “help.” Keep yapping, T.J.

* Most Exciting Start-up. Will Wavetracer’s pioneering desk-side supercomputer become an industry standard? Who knows? The point is that a gang of 10 engineers spent $2 million and produced a potential world-beating machine in the space of just 15 months. Shame on the centralists and industrial-policy shills who insist that nothing significant can be done these days without government support, half-a-billion bucks and 1,000 engineers!

* Most Exciting Set of Companies. American managers are obsessed with the Japanese. But what about the Germans? The animating force for their economy is unsung middle-sized companies, called the Mittelstand. A typical example is commercial oven-maker Rational. The 325-person, $60-million firm is staunchly independent, R&D-intense and export-driven, selling two-thirds of its high-value wares outside Germany. There’s a lot we Americans can learn from such globe-busters.

* Idea of the Year I. I call them the “division companies.” To keep entrepreneurial spirit alive they almost arbitrarily split up old units when they start to get big—and give the new entities astonishing autonomy. Britain’s Virgin Group (entertainment and travel), Thermo Electron (pollution control equipment, etc.), Sequa Corp.’s Aero Component Technologies (airline engine parts, maintenance, and remanufacturing), Associated Group’s Acordia companies (financial services), and International Data Group (computer-industry publications) among them. They forego classic scale economics, opting to unleash modest-sized bands of highly focused, highly motivated people.

* Idea of the Year II. Make everyone an entrepreneur. In a recent column I discussed Lakeland (Florida) Regional Medical Center’s “care pairs” (technician, registered nurse) who act as a micro-hospital, handling by themselves 80 percent or more of four to seven patients’ needs. Firms are learning how to turn those close to the front line—in hospitals, railroads, manufacturers—into full-fledged entrepreneurs.

* Idea of the Year III. Do it yourself! Forget a 25-year career at good old XYZ Company. Take your destiny into your own hands. The white-collar blood bath of the last 10 years is just the start. Big corporations need a lot fewer lathe operators than they used to; and a lot fewer middle managers and functional staffers. Survivors must become de facto entrepreneurs and view their careers as a series of stops at any number of companies; those not up to perpetually building their skills and dealing with such turmoil are in for a rough ride.

* Product of the Year. The high-end, mind-warping jigsaw puzzles from Norwich, Vermont’s Stave Puzzles. Matchless craftsmanship, overnight customizing (birthday, alma mater, etc., can be hidden within), and catch Steve Stave’s personal guarantee: “You must be completely satisfied (no, make that thrilled) with the quality, inventiveness, and experience of putting together your Stave Puzzle, or the purchase price will be refunded, together with the cost of a bottle of aspirin.”

* Book of the Year. This year’s honors go to Charles Savage for 5th Generation Management (Digital Press). Savage joins a select few (Charles Handy, The Age of Unreason; Quinn Mills, The Rebirth of the Corporation; Stan Davis, Future Perfect) who exquisitely explain tomorrow’s bizarre organizational arrangements, where hierarchies are leveled and the imagery of networks and spiderwebs butts out yesterday’s pyramids.

* Goats. A pair of venerable American institutions earn 1991’s catcalls. Ford, for confronting a market downturn by huffing and puffing, then giving us a “new” Taurus that’s a carbon copy of the old one. Procter & Gamble, for mind-boggling isolation and arrogance in foraging through millions of phone records in pursuit of an unimportant employee leak to the Wall Street Journal. Anybody home in these two boardrooms?

(C) 1991 TPG Communications.

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