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 / Winter 2013 / Issue 73(originally published by Booz & Company)

Business Literature: Best Business Books 2013

Best Business Books 2013: Company Stories

Lessons in Failure

Edoardo Nesi
Story of My People
(Other Press, 2013)

Steven G. Mandis
What Happened to Goldman Sachs: An Insider’s Story of Organizational Drift and Its Unintended Consequences
 (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013) 

David C. Robertson with Bill Breen
Brick by Brick: How Lego Rewrote the Rules of Innovation and Conquered the Global Toy Industry
(Crown Business, 2013)

Economist and systems scientist Kenneth Boulding once wrote, “Nothing fails like success because we don’t learn from it. We learn only from failure.” If that is the case, then the best business books relating company stories this year are packed with learning. Each one is a chronicle of failure in its own way: Edoardo Nesi’s Story of My People tells the tale of a family-owned company that failed because of its inability to adapt to a new reality; Steven Mandis’s What Happened to Goldman Sachs tells the story of a company that failed to live up to its values; and David Robertson and Bill Breen's Brick by Brick tells the story of a company that failed twice, but each time figured out how to recover.

A Failure to Adapt

We all know that globalization has disrupted industries around the world, but we don’t always connect disruption to the destruction of ways of life—the social fabric that globalization can rend and tear. Story of My People, by Edoardo Nesi, a polemic fueled by grief and rage at the devastating effect of globalization on the Italian textile industry, makes that connection tangible.

Nesi is the scion of a business family in the Tuscan town of Prato, which was a center for the design and manufacture of textiles for centuries. An award-winning writer, filmmaker, and translator, he knows the negative effects of globalization intimately: Nesi worked in and helped run his family’s textile business from 1993 to 2004, when he had no choice but to engineer the sale of the firm because it was no longer able to compete against lower-priced Chinese competitors.

With a literary mind and a flair for the visual, Nesi conjures up a vivid portrait of the fabric manufacturing company founded by his grandfather and granduncle, Lanificio T.O. Nesi & Figli SpA, and its long run of success in the fast-expanding economies of post–World War II Europe. It was a good time to be in business: Nesi recounts sales visits to Germany during which orders were written on the basis of relationships and price was rarely, if ever, discussed. This continued for three decades, during which time Prato became the center of a complex textile ecosystem, “insanely fragmented but incredibly efficient.”

No one profited more than Nesi’s family. He imagines familial ghosts taking their places at the empty tables around him, “drinking their martinis and their negronis and their camparis…miserably happy with all that they possess, their houses at [the seaside] and their Ferraris, their boats and their elegant clothing, their factories and their spectacular lovers.…” It reminds him of scenes written by F. Scott Fitzgerald. “If only novels and movies and paintings and poetry and opera and songs and even fashion—yes, even fashion—could ride to the rescue,” he writes, “preserving jobs and saving us all from a long, steady slide into, first, depression and ultimately poverty.”

There is, of course, no savior waiting in the wings, and Nesi’s grief over the loss of a way of life for his family, Prato, and, indeed, all of Italy turns to rage as he reflects on the causes of the economic catastrophe wrought by globalization. He shoulders part of the blame, admitting that the leaders of Prato’s textile industry mistakenly believed that they “could go on in the third millennium, selling the same fabrics…made out of the same raw materials and the same yarns, weaving them on the same looms, [dyeing] them the same colors…selling them to the usual customers in the usual markets,” never realizing that they were artisans, not industrialists, heirs to ancient traditions who had benefited from a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

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