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The Big Boys : STYLES OF CORPORATE POWER by Ralph Nader and William Taylor (Pantheon: $22.95; 536 pp.)

May 04, 1986|Allan A. Kennedy | Kennedy, president of his own Boston-based consulting and software firm, Selkirk Associates Inc., is co-author with Vanderbilt's Terry Deal of "Corporate Cultures" (Addison-Wesley, 1982). and

Consumer advocate, author ("Unsafe at Any Speed") and general purpose consciousness-raiser Ralph Nader has teamed up with William Taylor, a former feature writer for the Hartford Advocate, to give us in "The Big Boys" an up-close and personal view of nine major business leaders--seven of them CEOs of large companies. Of the nine subjects profiled in the book, only six agreed to personal interviews with the authors (including four of the CEOs).

Undeterred by this and armed with Nader's near-fetish for researching every published detail about a subject he is interested in, the authors chose to proceed. Unfortunately, the book suffers enormously from this decision. It suffers even more from the authors' penchant for finding something bad to say about each of their subjects, whether the evidence they report seems to warrant it or not.

The chapter on David Roderick (an interviewee) of U.S. Steel is obsessed with Roderick's recent decisions to close steel-making capacity while simultaneously investing close to $6 billion in the acquisition of Marathon Oil. The authors particularly take Roderick to task for his seeming intransigence in dealing with constituencies affected by facilities closings. Their concerns about these issues get in the way of their stated intent of giving readers an inside view of how large corporations work.

In looking at U.S. Steel's position in the early '80s, most business observers today would agree with Roderick that major strategic realignment was necessary if the company was to survive. They might not agree on the specifics of the direction Roderick chose, but at a minimum, they would adopt a wait-and-see attitude. The authors are not so patient. Moreover, nowhere do they acknowledge that Roderick's seeming intransigence may be in part a posture he assumed in order to mobilize people in the company behind an agenda focused on achieving long-term changes in the way the company conducts its business. Having seen executives involved in situations like that which Roderick faces, I am inclined to be a bit more sympathetic. On balance, however, this chapter does offer some interesting insights into how one large company works.

By contrast, Nader and Taylor's chapter on Roger Smith, the CEO of General Motors (a non-interviewee), is a polemic rehash of old Nader complaints about the industry in general, and GM in particular. GM is portrayed as being unconcerned about safety and technological innovation. Smith himself is taken to task for his various arrangements to export car-building jobs to the Far East. The company's Saturn project to build a new line of competitive small cars is criticized for the excessive ballyhoo it has generated since its announcement. Smith's insensitivity is recorded in relationship to GM's and Detroit's actions to clear the Poletown area of that city for a new assembly plant.

Many observers of the U.S. auto industry, this reviewer included, would agree with many of Nader and Taylor's comments about, for example, safety: GM's reticence on air bags is both absurd and irresponsible. However, given the near-total reliance in this chapter on secondary sources of material, it is not surprising that the chapter comes across as a statement rather than an informative profile.

And so it goes with the rest of the book. The chapter on Paul Oreffice (an interviewee), the CEO of Dow Chemical, takes the company to task for finding a toxic chemical in one of its products but failing to warn others about the threat. The reader senses that this chapter would be an out-and-out polemic except that, against their will, the authors came to like their subject personally.

The profile of deal-maker Felix Rohatyn (an interviewee) seems to have a hard time faulting Rohatyn on his record of public service and concludes lamely by suggesting he really ought to do more.

The chapter on Charles Walker (an interviewee), the leading tax lobbyist in the country, is an informative profile of how Washington really works. It offers little real insight, however, on Walker himself and why he does what he does.

Their chapter on Whitney MacMillan (a non-interviewee), the CEO of privately held grain trader Cargill, is an exercise in frustration (the authors', that is). Cargill is a private company, and therefore little is published about it. Few associated with the company would talk to Nader and Taylor. And Cargill is big, powerful and undeniably important. With apparently little else to say about it, the authors instead spend their time railing against secrecy and non-disclosure.

Thomas Jones, CEO of Northrop (a non-interviewee), is raked over the coals for overseas bribery and involvement in the Watergate scandal. While the authors acknowledge that Northrop alone among major defense contractors invested $800 million to develop a new aircraft (the F-20), they seem to take the company and the CEO to task for trying anything they could think of to sell some of the planes and recoup their investment.

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