Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Eminent Corporations by Andrew Simms and David Boyle

Corporations have neither bodies to be punished, nor souls to be condemned; they therefore do as they like.

So said Edward Thurlow, the 18th century Lord Chancellor.

Andrew Simms and David Boyle’s new book Eminent Corporations does much to bear this view out through its histories of eight famous British companies from the East India Company to Virgin. They tap into a rich lode of history with which I was largely unfamiliar.

The pattern is set in the first chapter on the East India Company, which is contributed by Nick Robins. Remarkable figures crop up, where many famous names are encountered: Robert Clive, Warren Hastings, Edmund Burke, Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill.

And so on through Barclays, Cadburys, Marks & Spencer, Rover and BP to the BBC and Virgin. Many remarkable figures are encountered along the way, none more so than Michael Marks. He was born as the youngest of five children of a miller and tailor in what is now Belarus “probably in 1863”. Driven out by a pogrom, he arrived in London as a teenager who spoke only Yiddish. He ended up in Yorkshire working as a peddler and then running a market stall. He opened his first shop in Manchester in 1894 and then rest is history – a fascinating history detailed in Eminent Corporations.

Simms and Boyle’s model is Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, which is a slight problem for me in that I have far more time for those Victorians than I do for Strachey and his Bloomsbury companions. Strachey was concerned simply with showing that his subjects were too, too amusing, but his modern successors want to point morals. At times, with sudden lectures on the wickedness of Big Oil or claims that television is undermining our culture, they risk appearing tendentious.

If there is a moral it is probably more to do with the inevitable decline and fall of business dynasties. Again and again, we see family companies bringing in outside managers or becoming public companies, only for what made them great and distinctive being lost.

But it is for the stories and the great figures that you should read this book. I can see company histories written along these lines becoming an unexpected publishing success story.

There is a review of Eminent Corporations in the Financial Times by Jeremy Leggett.

1 comment:

dreamingspire said...

It is the people running big companies who can do as they like. Interesting that the Irish govt has been the first to take a stand: Allied Irish Directors then cancelled the bonuses and took the risk of being sued.