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April 23, 2003

Jack Covert Selects: Jack Covert Selects - The Maverick and His Machine

By: 800-CEO-READ @ 3:43 PM – Filed under: Management & Workplace Culture

The Maverick and His Machine by Kevin Maney, John Wiley and Sons, 500 Pages, $29.95 Hardcover, April 2003, ISBN 0471414638

I love business success stories, and have read some very good ones. Not surprisingly, many of them are about IBM, like the Lou Gertsner book (Who Says Elephants Cant Dance?) from last year. However, until reading The Maverick and His Machine, I did not realize the extent that IBM grew in its early years—even in the harsh economic reality of the Depression.

Although the Social Security Act of 1934 helped their card punch machine business because everybody needed to keep more records, Thomas Watson, Sr. earlier increased R&D; in 1931, he spent $1 million—nearly 6 percent of their total revenue—to build the first corporate research lab. In fact, between 1929 and 1932, Watson increased IBM's production capacity by one-third! After learning all this information, I couldn't wait to turn the page to find out what was coming up.

Kevin Maney, USA Today's technology columnist, has written an engaging biography of one of the most interesting business people of the first half of the 20th Century. Watson was involved in a scandal at National Cash Register during the start of his career, where an autocratic man who was always working the boundaries of ethical behavior ran the company. In a 1912 federal antitrust suit, Watson was convicted with 29 other NCR people on three counts of unethical business practices. The verdict was later overturned.

Peter Drucker, who knew Watson during the 30s and 40s, said, "People underestimated how badly that trial hurt him. He was portrayed as a villain. I don't think he ever recovered from it."

Although it was overturned, the conviction helped to create the company that IBM became: a straight laced, ethical organization with a distinctive culture. Maney states:

 

The combination of his style and values simply worked and drew to him others who either shared his style and values or bought into them. As that cultural core permeated the whole company, Watson grasped the importance of culture, supported it, and stoked it to ever-greater levels.

 

This is one of the best corporate biographies I have read in a while; and on a more frivolous end, the design of the book with a large old-fashioned font and stunning cover added to my enjoyment. If you like this book, you will love the BEST corporate bio I have read, Father Son and Company: My Life at IBM and Beyond by Thomas J. Watson, Jr. Even though I first read it over ten years ago, I still consider it excellent.