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Published: November 25, 2008

 
 

Best Business Books 2008: Management

Not all new ventures succeeded. A move into Germany in the mid-1970s attempted to export too much of UPS’s American culture and led to substantial losses before the firm could adjust. The rise of the FedEx Corporation, beginning in 1973, with its hub-and-spoke air-based model, took the company by surprise (the model was the antithesis of UPS’s city-by-city approach). It required eight long years before UPS could match FedEx’s Memphis hub with its own massive center in Louisville, Ky.

Missteps aside, by the end of the 20th century, UPS found itself ideally positioned to exploit the new emphasis of global business on logistics and supply chain management, and it offered a plethora of services to organizations ready to outsource these functions. After an agonizing decision-making process, the company decided to go public in 1999, a decision with both beneficial and problematic consequences. Many insiders earned huge premiums on their stock holdings, but employees could no longer rely on the steady appreciation of an internally set, conservative stock price, and now had to cope with shareholders who did not share their devotion to the company. Nevertheless, UPS’s continuing ability to learn from its own experience, which harks back to its founder, would seem to stand it in good stead.

Mr. Fix-it
There was concern in some quarters over the timing of the release of Steve Miller’s The Turnaround Kid: What I Learned Rescuing America’s Most Troubled Companies. The large auto parts manufacturer Delphi Corporation, Miller’s last project, was unexpectedly delayed in its emergence from Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and it was feared that Miller’s unflattering comments about both the United Auto Workers and the General Motors Corporation might jeopardize the firm’s progress. These fears seem overblown. Miller’s comments are hardly incendiary, and it is highly unlikely that the parties concerned were unaware of his opinions of them. Miller’s corporate clients were typically in extremis, and although many inside the firms may still be in denial about the gravity of their plight, such denial was a luxury that Miller, as an outside turnaround expert, could not afford.

It is Steve Miller’s capacity for acute assessment of corporate situations and blunt statement of issues that resonates throughout the book. His candor applies equally to his personal life. In most businessmen’s memoirs, the executive’s wife is a shadowy figure, if she is mentioned at all. But Maggie, Miller’s wife for nearly 40 years, is front and center, a true partner in his career. Miller is brutally honest about both the joys and the woes of the family life of a busy executive. Maggie, who died in 2006, was his mirror, feeding his ideas back to him and giving her own clear, candid assessment of situations and people. She also had deep insecurities that led to erratic behavior when she was under stress. Anyone who has lived the corporate life, with the immense strain that it can put on family relationships, will hear the ring of truth in this.

Although many of Miller’s clients are in essentially the same straits, he offers no formula for success. The ideas he extracts from his experience are straightforward: Tell everyone the truth, especially if it hurts; don’t study things to death; listen to your customers as well as your people, and so on. There is nothing new here; the magic is in the ability of executives to apply these ideas consistently in situations where there will be multiple distractions and immense pressure to do something else.

Miller closes his book with some thoughts on public policy in three areas closely related to his corporate rescue activities: pensions, health care, and energy. In pensions, for example, he applauds the shift to defined-contribution plans from defined-benefit plans, with their open-ended implications for corporate support. He also warns that the regulation of pension plans needs to be tightened to prevent firms from underestimating their future obligations.

 
 
 
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