Category Archives: Book Review

Book Review: American Icon

Bryce G. Hoffman. American Icon: Alan Mulally and the Fight to Save Ford motor Company. New York: Crown Business, 2012. 422 pp. $26.00 (Hardcover), ISBN 978-0-307-88605-7.

Today the automotive world looks to Ford Motor Company as a standard in quality in the industry. This had not always been the case. In fact, this is a very recent development, coming only in the last five years. Like General Motors and Chrysler, Ford had been viewed as complacent in the market and bloated in brands in the late 1990s and early 2000s. This was only made worse under the leadership of CEOs Alex Trotman and Jacques Nasser. In 2001, Bill Ford become CEO of the company that bore his family’s name, but he began to realize Ford was in poor shape, and he was not the man to run the company.

Automotive journalist Bryce G. Hoffman explores this early history briefly in his book American Icon: Alan Mulally and the Fight to Save Ford Motor Company. Bill Ford realized that Ford was desperate and needed to find someone who could save it. The man chosen for the job was Boeing executive Alan Mulally. Mulally had worked at Boeing after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 when Boeing’s sales were cut by over 50% following the attacks, and Mulally began to cut Boeing and reorganize it into a global business. This record attracted the attention of Bill Ford and he brought him to Ford as CEO in September 2006.

Hoffman uses his connections, as well as the cooperation of Mulally and many within Ford, to tell the story of one of the greatest turn-arounds in business history. When Mulally arrived at Ford, he encountered a poison corporate culture that encouraged competition and backstabbing among its executives. His job was to save Ford from bankruptcy, by some estimates Ford was only a few months from this reality, but Mulally would have to train the executives to think, and act, as a team. He did this by having weekly meetings with all senior executives who were required to present the data from their respective departments to Mulally each week. He wanted openness, something that had never been stressed in Detroit.

CEO Alan Mulally, Chairman Bill Ford, and VP of North American Cars and Trucks Mark Fields

As the openness began to spread, the problems within Ford became clear to Mulally and this allowed him and the team to begin restructuring the company. His goals was to simplify the Ford lineup by eliminating the majority of its brands (Ford owned Ford, Lincoln, Mercury, Aston Martin, Jaguar, Land Rover, Volvo, and a stake in Mazda). At the same time, Mulally brought the organization methods used at Boeing to make Ford global. This organization saved Ford a great deal of money allowing them to sell the same cars worldwide and build a number of cars on the same vehicle platforms.

What set Ford apart was the fact that it was not bailed out by the United States government during the 2008 economic crisis. Ford had begun its restructuring two years before the meltdown and had seen the recession coming. It borrowed $23 billion in preparation for the crisis and came through the recession as a winner. The brand was praised by the public for not having to take federal bailouts like its competitors, but Ford had also begun improving quality and this was getting the attention of automotive publishers and Consumer Reports.

Hoffman’s description of Ford’s recovery is extremely detailed. This is due to his access to Ford executives and Mulally, but also due to the fact that he promised to not associate particular stories and quotes to their respective sources. This made people from Ford open up to Hoffman and he uses every piece of information to his advantage. His exploration of Ford’s restructuring is both informative and instructional.

The story of Ford’s resurgence is nothing short of amazing. It is striking similar to Steve Jobs’s return to Apple in 1997. But the one difference is Mulally. While Jobs is often described as a product visionary and, at times, difficult to work for, Mulally is more business minded and openly kind to employees at  every level of Ford. Both men’s systems of leadership have proven to be successful in the last decade despite their different leadership styles.

It may be a stretch to call Alan Mulally the greatest CEOs ever, but he is certainly the greatest automotive CEO in history. He knew how to read customers and the market and develop plans to meet both. Hoffman describes how the CEOs of GM and Chrysler scoffed at Mulally, an outsider, in 2006, but today Mulally is still head of Ford, they are no longer employed by the auto industry.

Hoffman’s analysis of Mulally’s business restructuring plans is the most important aspect of this book. The openness and sharing of ideas, weekly meetings with department heads, and a matrix organization system. He concludes that this plan is one that can be applied to a variety of businesses. Unlike books on Apple and Steve Jobs which specifically say their books are not intended to be instructional, Hoffman’s book is. The case of Ford and Mulally will likely be studied by business students in the future.

Hoffman has pieced together a great book that explains how Mulally was able to save Ford Motor Company. Mulally’s fight was not easy, battling the United Auto Workers, his executives, the government, and the Ford family. Each time, Mulally came out on top. The greatest fear at Ford today is when Mulally will retire. At 66, he is likely the oldest employee at Ford, if not in the auto industry. Many worry that his changes will not remain in place after he is gone. Only time will tell, but one thing is for certain, Ford is looking stronger now than it has it the history of the company, thanks to Alan Mulally. 

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Book Review: The Complete Peanuts

My collection of The Complete Peanuts

One of my favorite comic strips is Charles Schulz’s Peanuts. There have been hundreds of Peanuts books published since the 1950s, but the books give small collections of strips and none of the books have been complete. In 2004, Fantagraphics Books began publishing The Complete Peanuts. Each volume has two complete years, in chronological order, of the Peanuts comic strip. These books are being released at two volumes per year and the last volume is scheduled to be published in May 2016. The most recent volume was The Complete Peanuts: 1983-1984.

Peanuts is one of the longest running comic strips in history. It began in October 1950 and was based on a series of comics Charles Schulz had done for a local newspaper called Lil’ Folks. The strip was published daily until Schulz’s retirement in January 2000. He died February 12, 2000 – the day before the final Sunday Peanuts comic strip ran in newspapers around the world. Today, the strip is still run in countless newspapers around the world, but Peanuts fans like having access to the complete series, and until these books, that was not possible, in print at least. Fantagraphics books is doing a great thing for the Peanuts community.

I have been collecting these books since 2004, and I buy the newest volume as it is released. I enjoy reading the comics when I have free time, and it is easy to get lost in the Peanuts world. Whether it is Snoopy’s World War I Flying Ace or Charlie Brown’s poor performance in baseball, Schulz was a comic genius. There are not many comic strips in newspapers today. In the world of online media, print media is suffering and it has effected the print comic strips. These volumes are a reminder of what comic strips once meant to the world. They were simple, but told stories that everyone could relate to.

I realize this is not much of a book review, but there is not alot to say about these books. They are simple and entertaining. Peanuts fans should be grateful to the Schulz family and Fantagraphics Books for providing fans with the complete comic strip.

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Book Review: Insanely Simple by Ken Segall

Ken Segall. Insanely Simple: The Obsession that Drives Apple’s Success. New York: Penguin Group, 2012. 225 pp. $25.95 (Hardcover), ISBN 978-1-59184-483-9

Ad agency creative director Ken Segall provides an inside look at Apple under Steve Jobs in his book Insanely Simple: The Obsession that Drives Apple’s Success. As the title suggests, Segall’s focus is on the business side of Jobs’s stint at Apple following his return in 1997. This is somewhat different from Walter Isaacson’s book, Steve Jobs. Issacson focuses more on the personal life of Jobs and how that came out in his professional life. Segall does not dwell on Jobs’s personal life, but instead focuses only on the businessman. This makes the two books go together very well. In fact, the stories within Segall’s book would have fit nicely into the Issacson’s work.

As the book’s jacket blurb suggests, “you’ll be a fly on the wall inside a conference room with Steve Jobs.” For those who have read about Jobs’s business style, that can either be incredibly exciting or incredibly terrifying, and Segall illustrates both. There is no doubt that Jobs could be a tyrant and that comes out in the book, but at the same time, he was extremely focused and that is part of what made Apple successful. Being the “fly on the wall” is the greatest values of this book. The inside story of how two companies interacted. The stories of how Steve Jobs ran every aspect of Apple.

The books title, Insanely Simple, suggests that the the argument of the book is about Apple’s focus on simplicity as a market and business strategy. This is certainly not a new concept, but it is an interesting topic to cover. Segall was present at the creation of this strategy as Jobs returned to Apple in 1997 and clearly outlines its development. Simplicity is certainly a central feature of all Apple products. Jobs’s goal was to make a product as easy to use as possible, and he often succeeded. Whether it is the Mac or an iOS device, the goal was the same for both. At times, the stories are more about Steve Jobs then they are simplicity, but Segall has clearly contributed to the overall understanding of Apple and Steve Jobs.

The reader is taken on a journey through some of the greatest business decisions. Segall’s insights and unique view, he did name the iMac after all, make this book worthy of sitting on a shelf next to Isaacson’s. The book’s title is a bit deceiving as it is more about Steve Jobs and his obsession with simplicity. A concept that Apple had not embraced while he was absent. Overall, Segall writes a solid narrative and I recommend the book to anyone who wished that Isaacson had highlighted more of Jobs’s business savvy.

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Book Review: Steve Jobs

Walter Isaacson.  Steve Jobs.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011.  630 pp. Hardcover $35.00 ISBN 978-1451648539.

There have been several books written about Steve Jobs over the years, but only Isaacson’s can claim the title “Authorized Biography.”  As Isaacson explains in the introduction, the book came about due to Steve’s persistence and was created following over forty interviews with Steve.  In addition, Isaacson interviewed about one hundred other people including family, friends, foes, and rivals.  This combination provides for one of the most complete biographies of Steve Jobs, an extremely private man, ever produced.

Everyone is familiar with the story of Apple’s creation, but what Isaacson is able to provide is some insight into Steve’s thinking.  From the book we learn that Steve was rebellious from childhood, experimented with a wide variety of drugs, and was a devout Buddhist.  There are other concerning aspects of Steve’s life including his bizarre diets and cruelty to those he deemed inferior.

One aspect of Steve’s personality that Isaacson focuses on his Steve’s “reality distortion field.”  Steve applied this distortion field rather liberally throughout his life.  Whether he was convincing others to meet impossible deadlines or denying that he was the father of his oldest daughter, his reality distortion field could be easy for others to buy into.  At times it did prove correct, however, and those around him were able to pull off the impossible.  However, the reality distortion field did fail him on several occasions, most notably his decision not to receive an operation to remove a tumor from his pancreas in 2003.

Isaacson’s book provides great tales from Steve’s experiences at Apple, NeXT, and Pixar.  The book feels taught and complete.  Perhaps the most difficult chapters to read are those that describe Steve’s cancer and how much he suffered the last year of his life.  Amazingly, despite is suffering; he was able to appear on stage twice in 2011, although, as the book describes, Steve had to prepare himself for these appearances.  The cancer was extremely aggressive and created a cycle that destroyed his appetite and caused him great pain and depression.  He never stopped working with Apple engineers, however, and was even designing a yacht for himself and his family when he died.

Steve has been compared to many other giants of industry and design, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and Frank Lloyd Wright.  Steve was not perfect, and neither were any of these men.  Often their work took precedence over everything else, including their families.  Steve was no different.  His children, three of them were interviewed for the book, understood that their father was doing great work and did not blame him for his, at times, neglect.  Neither did his wife, Laurene Powell.

Isaacson’s book reads quickly and is high recommended for anyone interested in Apple, technology, or learning about a giant of our time.  There are occasions when stories are repeated, and the reader questions whether or not Isaacson himself falls under the spell of Steve’s reality distortion field, but this is likely due to the speed at which this book was released.  Nevertheless, Steve Jobs is a masterpiece about a guy who, could be an asshole at times, but vastly changed the way we use technology….and was taken from the world far too soon.

Isaacson’s book reveals one glimmer of hope, however.  Steve’s oldest son, Reed, developed an interest in cancer research and is currently studying at Stanford University, the same institution that treated his father.  The type of cancer that claimed Steve has been studied intensely thanks to Steve and his willingness to allow Stanford to study him and his tumor.  There are drugs today to slow the growth of the cancer to allow those suffering from it to enjoy a long and healthy life.  Steve hoped that he would be one of the last to die from his cancer, and he very well could be.

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