Business Columns & Blogs

Catch up on business theory, history with these summer book suggestions

We’re a little late getting our traditional list of recommendations of business books for summer reading to you, seeing that it’s already August.

Hope you’ve been able to keep yourself entertained in the meantime. That “Da Vinci Code” guy wrote a doorstop of an Italian-art-and-literature lecture that might be worth a look. Or there’s J.K. Rowling, slumming under an assumed name (conveniently leaked) in the mystery field.

But there have been a shelf’s worth of worthy business books that not only provide diversion reading but offer considerable insight into how the economy and business work, in ways that might be of value in dealing with the challenges of your own professional life.

Two of this year’s recommendations are in the vast field of World War II histories. You’d think that, nearly 70 years after the war’s end, there’d be little new to mine or original perspectives to offer. You’d think incorrectly.

“Freedom’s Forge” by Arthur Herman details the history of a battlefield as crucial as any in the European or Pacific theaters – ramping up industrial production to supply the Allied armies, navies and air forces. The book’s subtitle, “How American Business Produced Victory in World War II” condenses the theme but doesn’t begin to hint at how difficult a task it was to deal with myriad problems including meddling by government officials with little insight into how anything actually got made, an industrial base ravaged by the Depression and trying to coordinate the work of hundreds of suppliers making thousands of parts, not to mention finding, hiring, training and housing the workers needed in those production jobs.

For those with an interest in local history, “Freedom’s Forge” has references to Henry Kaiser and his shipyards, the Boeing Renton plant and its role in the B-29 Superfortress and a Seattle plant that turned out a plywood version of the Quonset hut by the thousands, for deployment in Alaska.

Local references can also be found in “Engineers of Victory” by Paul Kennedy, who looks at (as summarized by the subtitle) “the problem solvers who turned the tide” in World War II.

Kennedy discusses a series of challenges, the resolution of which being crucial to victory: breaking the German U-boats’ deadly grip on the North Atlantic, taking a shore controlled by the enemy (Normandy), winning control of the air, dealing with the vast distances of the Pacific, and countering the tactic of blitzkrieg.

Kennedy himself makes the parallel to business: “The winning of great wars always requires superior organization, and that in turn requires people who can run those organizations, not in a blinkered way but most competently and in a fashion that will allow outsiders to feed fresh ideas into the pursuit of victory. None of this can be done by the chiefs alone, however great their genius, however massive their energy. There has to be a support system, a culture of encouragement, efficient feedback loops, a capacity to learn from setbacks, an ability to get things done. And all this must be done in a fashion that is better than the enemy’s.”

Oh yes, the local reference. “By 1943, a stream of new, small, but powerful escort carriers was pouring out of the Tacoma, Washington, shipyards, their crews and aircrews going into intensive training, steaming through the Panama Canal, then forming the core of the escorts for the enormous numbers of American troops, munitions and other supplies heading toward the Mediterranean theater as the invasions of Sicily and Italy developed.”

We talk a lot in this space about economic development, so naturally books that explain strategies and trends catch the eye. For a sobering, even depressing, look at what happens when the economy doesn’t develop or change, take a look at Edward McClelland’s “Nothin’ But Blue Skies,” in which he tours and chronicles the industrial past and dismal present of cities across the Rust Belt.

For a more local analysis, Michael Luis’ “Century 21 City” looks at the region’s “50-year journey from World’s Fair to world stage” and how it managed to avoid the fate of those Rust Belt cities. Although its title makes it sound Seattlecentric, it’s packed with perspective on the Puget Sound region’s economic, commercial and governmental structure, its strengths and shortcomings.

Speaking of economic development, how did a thinly populated, agrarian former colony (United States) overtake its former colonizer (Great Britain) to become the world’s dominant economic power? That’s the story of “The Dawn of Innovation” by Charles Morris, who explains this country’s original industrial revolution in the first half of the 19th century. Morris’ book also contains what may be the best line to appear in a book in the last year, a description of firearms maker Samuel Colt as “that walking bonfire of other people’s money.” That might have applicability today.

Of course, some American commerce has been based in trading and moving things and people we’re legally and officially not supposed to. “Smuggler Nation” by Peter Andreas, who details the history of illicit trade in illegal goods, and the usually futile attempts to stop it. “There are inherent limits to how much we can deter, detect and interdict unauthorized flows of goods and people across our borders, especially while maintaining an open society and keeping borders open for legal trade and travel,” he writes.

There you go. And if this list is too late for summer, just think of it as getting an early start on your fall reading.

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at