Small Giants -- Companies That Choose to Be Great Instead of Big by Bo Burlingham, Portfolio/Penguin, $24.95, 224 pages, ISBN #1591840937, index, further reading sources, unillustrated.
William Durant never spoke of his "mojo," but when he bounded out of bed each day in the early years of the last century and bought out David Buick, took over Cadillac, and courted Henry Ford, his focused passion proved the key element in forming General Motors. A century later, beset by pension woes and draining competition, some in the company may wonder where the mojo went.
They might want to ask Bo Burlingham, editor at large of Inc. Magazine, who suggests some answers in his new book, Small Giants -- Companies That Choose to Be Great Instead of Big. Remember when a private company's decision to go public was a cause for great rejoicing? To Burlingham, that's often when the problems start.
To illustrate his thesis, the author draws on the experience of 14 companies of various sizes, all of which have remained in private hands over the years. But their commonality is that all had the opportunity to go public or to make a major expansion and decided against it. As a result, their owners and employees had only to answer to themselves, not to shareholders, most of whom have never set foot in the shop.
But why would any sane capitalist turn down the chance to, perhaps, double his money? Could it be there are other things in life -- and in business -- than money? To illustrate, Burlingham profiles companies as diverse as Anchor Brewing in San Francisco, Righteous Babe Records in Buffalo and Union Square Hospitality Group in New York City.
What these and other companies have elected to do is to advance to the forefront other objectives than maximizing profit: being the absolute best at what they do, for instance; or developing a mutually contributory relationship with their community, or "finding great ways to lead their lives." Burlingham places emphasis on "human scale" in business, on managers who walk the floor and know every employee by name. Is there not a payoff in having employees who actually look forward to coming to work in the morning?
"I've made much more money by choosing the right things to say no to than by choosing things to say yes to," explains restaurateur Danny Meyer of Union Square Hospitality Group. "I measure it by the money I haven't lost and the quality I haven't sacrificed."
Burlingham sounds like a man on safari in his quest for mojo, describing his visits to his sample of 14 companies: "There was a quality they exuded that was real and recognizable but also frustratingly difficult to define. I could sense it as I walked around the business. I could see it in the contents of the bulletin boards and on the faces of the people. I could hear it in their voices. I could feel it in the way they interacted with one another, with customers and with total strangers. But I found the 'it' awfully hard to put my finger on."
Then he remembers the "it" being present in companies he's interviewed over the years as a business writer, such outfits as Apple Computer and People Express, whose Don Burr founded one of the first post-deregulation startup airlines, only to be swallowed up a few years later after having lost its mojo.
So call it mojo, call it soul, call it elan sometimes; anyone who's worked in an environment that has it knows instantly what you mean. And it's the author's wish that those who haven't experienced it get a chance to do so before they're done.