First published in the Financial Times on 21st August 2012.
The best business autobiographies
The most inspiring books for anyone starting a business are autobiographies by entrepreneurs. They are far more uplifting than any management texts or self-help manuals because they are real. Such memoirs of successful founders are rarely great literature and frequently superficial – many are almost extended puff pieces for their companies. But the beststories can be enlightening and instructive. Moreover, when they are written by the entrepreneurs themselves, they are always more authentic than any biography – even if they use a ghost writer.
I have read hundreds of business memoirs over the decades and many are boastful, self-serving and dull. But the books I recommend here have all encouraged me at different points in my business life, and for anyone who wants to understand what drives entrepreneurs and study examples of how various tycoons made their way in the world, here are my 10 favourites of the genre:
● Grinding It Out: The Making of McDonald’s by Ray Kroc. The tale of how a man of 52 bought a single hamburger restaurant and made it into the world’s largest fast food empire. A reminder that McDonald’s is really a franchise and property business first, and a catering corporation second.
● Confessions of an Advertising Man by David Ogilvy. The original Mad Man tells the history of Ogilvy & Mather and his career running what was the world’s greatest advertising agency. Unlike many entrepreneurs, Ogilvy can write. For anyone working in the marketing profession, this is an essential text.
● Against the Odds by James Dyson. The inventor who revolutionised vacuum cleaners. He produced more than 5,000 prototypes and spent 14 years before he manufactured his first dual cyclone appliance. This book describes his stamina, the endless litigation and his philosophy of design.
● The HP Way: How Bill Hewlett and I Built Our Company by David Packard. The co-founder of Hewlett- Packard describes how Silicon Valley started and how he helped build one of the world’s largest technology businesses. This short volume is not simply a corporate history. He also explains his management philosophy, belief in innovation and the role companies play in society.
● After I Was Sixty by Lord Thomson of Fleet. Roy Thomson was a moderately wealthy radio station owner in Canada when, at the age of 60, his wife died and his business partner left to enter public life. So Thomson travelled to Scotland and created a huge media empire, buying The Scotsman, The Times and The Sunday Times, numerous book publishers, founded Scottish Television, Thomson Holidays and became a pioneer investor in North Sea oil. Today his family is Canada’s richest and controls Thomson Reuters. The extraordinary adventures of an unusual man.
● The Autobiography of Andrew Carnegie. Like Ogilvy, Carnegie was a Scottish immigrant who made his fortune in America. He built the largest integrated steel business in the world in the late 19th century, sold out to JPMorgan and then proceeded to give most of his immense wealth away.
● A Growing Concern by Nigel Broackes. The author started out as a property developer and proceeded to build the legendary conglomerate Trafalgar House. At its peak, it was one of the largest companies in Britain and owned the Ritz, Express Newspapers, Cunard, construction companies and swaths of property assets.
● How to Lose $100,000,000 and Other Valuable Advice by Royal Little. This is a marvellous but unconventional book. The writer built the conglomerate Textron, mainly by acquisition, and in a series of short chapters, Little explains which deals worked and which did badly. A modest, original and informative read.
● Made in America by Sam Walton. The archetypal chronicle of a self-made man – in this case, the one who founded Walmart, the world’s largest retailer. Told in an easy-going style, the book details how the son of a failed Arkansas farmer created a business that today has revenues of more than $450bn and employs 2m staff.
● Forte: The Autobiography of Charles Forte. It took Italian immigrant Charles Forte 30 years to progress from owning a milk bar to leading the largest hotel company in the world. For anyone in the hospitality industry, this is a must read.