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Published: May 26, 2009

 
 

Epics of Enterprise

A Seven-generation Saga
One of the gems in my collection is The Thistle and the Jade: A Celebration of 150 Years of Jardine, Matheson & Company, a sumptuous story of one of the great trading companies of Hong Kong. (The thistle represents Scotland, where most of the partners of the firm came from, and the jade, China.) Originally published in 1982 to mark Jardine’s 150th anniversary, this book shows that a history sponsored by the company being profiled need not be a dud.

With 272 nine-by-12-inch pages, The Thistle and the Jade appears at first to be just an outsized coffee-table book. But it is also a work of unusual thoughtfulness. It sketches the Far Eastern saga of the trading house through the eyes of 10 observers who explore different aspects of the company’s history. The last chapter was written by the late John K. Fairbank, the Harvard professor who created the field of modern Chinese studies in the United States.

The result is a stunning history and a delight to the eye, replete with more than 240 illustrations that serve as a treasure trove of artifacts and memorabilia. The chapters themselves are not dry academic treatises but well-written narratives of a merchant bank whose operations were played out against a background of the Opium Wars, two world wars, and the rise of Chinese industry under a Communist regime. Along the way, the firm expanded to include Hongkong Land, the largest commercial property holder in Hong Kong; Dairy Farm, a retailing complex that operates 3,800 stores in Asia, including supermarkets, beauty shops, convenience stores, and restaurants; the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group; and Astra International, the largest automotive company in Indonesia.

Members of the founding families played active roles in the firm up to the present day, and in the production of the book as well. Editor Maggie Keswick was a descendant of cofounder William Jardine; she died in 1995. The current edition — a 2008 update to mark the firm’s 175th anniversary — was edited by Clara Weatherall, wife of Percy Weatherall, a seventh-generation scion of the Jardine family who worked for the bank in the Philippines and Hong Kong.

Fairbank, in his essay, notes that the “aggressive acts with which the British and others humiliated the Chinese in their own country were very obvious at the time and have been remembered ever since,” but he deplores simplistic theories assigning all blame to foreign forces. And he credits Jardine Matheson for being a “catalyst, sponsor, initiator, or challenger in China’s push toward modernization.”

Germany’s Auto-innovators
Many people believe that the automobile was invented in the United States. Not so. The Star and the Laurel: The Centennial History of Daimler, Mercedes, and Benz, 1886–1986, another great corporate his-tory, recounts the tale of Daimler-Benz AG (now Daimler AG), maker of the Mercedes-Benz line of automobiles. The book was first published in 1986 by Mercedes-Benz of North America, championed by public relations director Leo Levine. Although its list price was US$80, most copies were distributed gratis to customers, dealers, the press, and others, including more than 15,000 libraries across the country, as “our birthday present,” Levine said.

Like The Thistle and the Jade, this is a large-format, lavishly illustrated book. It runs 368 pages and is written by veteran automotive writer Beverly Rae Kimes. The story begins in 19th-century Germany, where two engineers, Carl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler, tinkered for years with internal combustion engines in workshops 60 miles apart, neither aware of what the other was doing. They each put their models on the road in 1886, 22 years before Henry Ford launched his Model T. Kimes describes in detail the ups and downs these two pioneers experienced before getting their motorized vehicles to work.

 
 
 
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Corporate History Resources
Works mentioned in this review.

  1. Wayne G. Broehl Jr., John Deere’s Company: A History of Deere & Company and Its Times (Doubleday, 1984), 880 pages
  2. Donald R. Katz, Just Do It: The Nike Spirit in the Corporate World (Random House, 1994), 344 pages
  3. Maggie Keswick, editor, The Thistle and the Jade: A Celebration of 150 Years of Jardine, Matheson & Company (Octopus Books, 1982), 272 pages; revised and updated by Clara Weatherall (Frances Lincoln, 2008)
  4. Beverly Rae Kimes, The Star and the Laurel: The Centennial History of Daimler, Mercedes, and Benz, 1886–1986 (Mercedes-Benz of North America, 1986), 368 pages
  5. Robert Lacey, Ford: The Men and the Machine (Little Brown, 1986), 798 pages
  6. David Magee, The John Deere Way: Performance That Endures (Wiley, 2005), 234 pages
  7. Jeffrey Rothfeder, McIlhenny’s Gold: How a Louisiana Family Built the Tabasco Empire (Collins, 2007), 260 pages
  8. Barbara Smit, Sneaker Wars: The Enemy Brothers Who Founded Adidas and Puma and the Family Feud That Forever Changed the Business of Sport (HarperCollins, 2008), 400 pages
 
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