April 4, 2012

News & Opinion: World Changers and Fortune

By: 800-CEO-READ @ 7:54 PM – Filed under: Narrative & Biography

John A. Byrne, former executive editor of BusinessWeek, editor in chief of Fast Company, and associate editor at Forbes, put out a great book in December with Portfolio called Game Changers: 25 Entrepreneurs Who Changed Business as We Knew It. It's a really intriguing read, especially great for those who love biographies and personalities. He recently revisited his list, picked The 12 Greatest Entrepreneurs of Our Time, and wrote a magazine piece for Fortune magazine on them. We all know the stories of many of these men—Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Sam Walton (and yes, unlike the book, this list is all men which Byrne said came as a surprise to him)—but how many have heard the story of Infosys's Narayana Murthy?
In 1974, Narayana Murthy was a 28-year-old politically left-leaning engineer on his way home to India from France. During his journey on a train, he struck up a conversation with one of the passengers "about the travails of living in an Iron Curtain country." He says: "We were interrupted by some policemen who, I later gathered, were summoned by a young man who thought we were criticizing the Communist government of Bulgaria."

Murthy was dragged out of the train and left in a small room without food or water for 72 hours, then thrown back on another departing train and released in Istanbul. His treatment purged Murthy of any affinity he had for the left and would ultimately help make him one of India's and the world's most successful capitalists. If he was to be a reformer, he realized, it would have to be through a system that was rejected by the Communists.

He proved that India could compete with the world by taking on the software development work that had long been the province of the West. As one of six co-founders of Infosys and the CEO for 21 years, Murthy helped spark the outsourcing revolution that has brought billions of dollars in wealth into the Indian economy and transformed his country into the world's back office.

His important lesson: An organization starting from scratch must coalesce around a team of people with an enduring value system. "It is all about sacrifice today, fulfillment tomorrow," explains Murthy, 65, who is now chairman emeritus. "It is all about sacrifice, hard work, lots of frustration, being away from your family, in the hope that someday you will get adequate returns from that."

One entrepreneur who didn't make the magazine cut was Herb Kohler Jr., who is one of only two people in the book who wasn't the founder of the organization they run, and one of my favorites—probably in part because he and his company are from Wisconsin, but also because he's a strong and original thinker who still retains an open mind. When asked by the author if he'd ever consider taking his company public public, Kohler responds:
Never. Never. Never. Never. In my lifetime, we never will. And I don't think in my kid's lifetime, they will. Privacy is an amazing benefit. Not because you are concealing anything. Internally we are very transparent. Concealment is not the issue. It's a whole different set of rules. As a private company, you can sustain a project in periods of adversity that our competitors would quit. We keep going most of the time. Our thinking in managing and operations is at least for a year, not the quarter. At the top, we're thinking as long as five to ten years out. And 50 percent of my life is very different because we're not public. I can think more creatively instead of trying to appease twenty-two-year-old graduates on Wall Street.
Howard Schultz expressed similar frustrations with Wall Street in his book Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life Without Losing Its Soul (which Rodale just put out in paperback), but being the head of a public company, he actually had to deal with them or watch his stock price take a hit. Howard Schultz, incidentally, did make ">Byrnes's article.

The most interesting thing about Kohler, other than his entire back story and the fact that he apparently rarely used the bathtubs his family is famous for during his rebellious hippie youth, is how his disbelief in vision opens up possibilities for his company:

Interestingly ... I'm a person who doesn't believe in vision. Obviously, I have some ideas about what I want to get done, but if I were to prescribe a vision for each of our major businesses I feel I would restrict how they develop. So we strongly encourage development in product processes within the confines of the business. I don't want to narrow it or alter it. I don't want to wipe out significant alternatives. We have a pretty thriving development community as a result.
Contrast that with others in the book like Steve Jobs or Oprah Winfrey, Muhammad Yunus or Richard Branson, and you'll see that there isn't one personality type or style that leads to being a great entrepreneur. You also begin to understand why a book like World Changers is so entertaining—and important to those just starting out.

Go get a taste with the article over at Fortune, and pick up the book for the full course. It's delicious reading.