Christmas Gift Books: Business – WSJ

The Brompton is a wonderful account of a British company that makes a folding commuter bike. The lead author, Will Butler-Adams, is the managing director of Brompton Bicycle and a chartered engineer. Edited and arranged by economist Dan Davies, the text flows cleanly and mechanically, every line and word snapping into place.

The Brompton: Technology for change

By William Butler-Adams

The experiment

288 pages

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Many chapters begin by examining one of the components of the bike and how it came to be. This engineer’s approach rids the book of any preachy nonsense. “Not everyone can produce high-quality hand-soldered connections,” writes Mr. Butler-Adams in a characteristic passage. “In addition to a steady hand and three-dimensional thinking, it requires an unusual level of calm and concentration.”

At bike shows, where competitors greet passers-by with swag, liquor and food, Brompton reps use a spanner and some allen wrenches to peddle their product to fellow bike nerds, who then become passionate dealers. It’s a slow but solid way to grow. Descriptions of how it’s made and sold sit alongside accounts of more universal leadership challenges, from dealing with unions to a whiny board of directors. The overarching tenet of Brompton is that company culture follows the efficiency of the bike itself. The product shapes the company.

Improper Hospitality: The remarkable power to give people more than they expect

By Will Guidara

optimism press

288 pages

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Will Guidara, a former co-owner of acclaimed New York restaurant Eleven Madison Park, offers his take on customer service in Unreasonable Hospitality. Its subtitle, “The Remarkable Power of Giving People More Than They Expect,” signals the rollercoaster pages that follow.

The book will open in 2010. Mr. Guidara and his business partner, Executive Chef Daniel Humm, are devastated by the experience of being ranked number 50 at a ceremony that recognized the world’s top 50 restaurants. They realized that putting this list together would take more than just hard work.

In the years that followed, Eleven Madison Park’s development into the best restaurant in the world was based on details. The lighting inside was adjusted during the sunset dinner. Traffic patterns for servers roaming between tables have been detailed and drilled. Waiters were taught the importance of placing a plate perfectly in front of a customer so nothing slips and ruins that one last moment of the presentation.

Mr Guidara also had to manage Mr Humm, a brilliant but spirited figure who was schooled in European kitchens where “shouting and humiliation . . . were normal workplace conditions.” When he saw his chef throwing an improperly made crab roll in a chef’s face, Mr Guidara dragged him down the hall and threatened to resign.

Despite the occasional hokey tone, this is an endearing and passionate book of insight for anyone trying to bring out the best in people.

Hangry: A startup journey

By Mike Evans

legacy lit

272 pages

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From the other end of the food business comes Hangry from Mike Evans, founder of delivery service Grubhub. He’s the gonzo journey of an early tech entrepreneur. He starts the book: “I’m done. All-day meetings. All-night programming sessions. midnight failures. software error. patent attorneys. Employee. investors. Thousands of angry customers. millions of lucky ones. And pizza. So much. Pizza.” After leading Grubhub to an IPO in 2014, Mr. Evans has left the company and is going on a bike tour across America.

This is a book about the horrific grind of building a startup. Mr. Evans discusses his idea with his wife while they have $236,000 in student loans. He teaches himself by reading books like Selling for Dummies. He writes a business plan using a Microsoft Word template called “Microsoft Business Planner” with sections on sales forecasts, credible forecasts, and customers. “I’m – you’re not . . . That’s how I made my business plan. Someone at Microsoft decided to write an introduction to how to start a business and bury it deep in the bowels of the program, and I stumbled upon it.”

Mr. Evans is constantly learning on the job, about managing a growing workforce and the “meaningless company chatter about corporate values.” He puts technology at the heart of the business and receives investment from Silicon Valley. And then on this bike ride, exhausted physically and emotionally, he ponders the meaning of it all. Did he aim high enough? Does the financial reward offset the personal cost? After a few years off, Mr. Evans is ready to do it all again.

Inside Vanguard: Management secrets of the company that keeps rewriting the rules of the investment business

By Charles D Ellis

McGraw Hill

304 pages

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Inside Vanguard is for mutual fund junkies. Author Charles Ellis, a consultant to financial institutions, leaves no basis point untouched. Vanguard now manages over $8 trillion in assets on behalf of 30 million investors. The company treats money management as an industrial practice: three-quarters of its assets are index funds, which prioritize low cost and scale.

Coloring Mr. Ellis’ book is provided by acclaimed Vanguard founder John Bogle, who comes across as a gifted narcissist obsessed with his place in history. Bogle (1929-2019) had a scorching youth and watched his family fall apart under financial stress. He responded by focusing on work. “Late in life,” writes Mr. Ellis, “he still believed that second place was not good enough, and quoted a crossword definition of ‘came second’ as ‘lost.’ ”

Bogle founded Vanguard in 1975 after a vicious dispute with his former employer, Wellington Management. He insisted that Vanguard should grow organically, not through acquisitions — and ran his company as frugally as he did his personal life. “I don’t like to spend money,” he once said. This dictum ran throughout Vanguard’s corporate culture, from the seedy offices to the cheap funds offered to its delighted clients.

The history of Vanguard under Bogle and his successors is one of efficiency and scale. When you’re managing $8 trillion, the slightest adjustment in fees can result in staggering amounts of capital to invest, leaving your competitors faltering and grumbling to regulators about the dangers of monopoly.

Mr. Delves Broughton is the author of The Art of the Sale: Learning From the Masters About the Business of Life.

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