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Published: May 26, 2009

 
 

Epics of Enterprise

The book, which was published in 1984, ends with the accession of Robert Hanson to CEO in 1982. In the previous 145 years, the company had had only five CEOs, all of them direct descendants of John Deere or husbands of descendants. Hanson, although not a member of the Deere family, explicitly carried on the family’s strong ethical sensibility, and that in turn affected the next great book about the company, The John Deere Way: Performance That Endures by David Magee.

Twenty years after John Deere’s Company was published, Magee — a prolific Tennessee-based journalist who has written books on General Electric, Ford, Nissan, and Toyota — started to search for what he called “America’s most values-based business.” He has said that it didn’t take him long to narrow the list to one: Deere & Company. He wasn’t fazed when he learned about Wayne Broehl’s massive account — indeed, he lavishes it with praise — because he wasn’t interested in writing a conventional history of Deere. And The John Deere Way was not sponsored or funded by Deere & Company.

Magee set out to draw a cultural portrait that would offset all the bad news about business, and he pulls it off in 234 pages. He weaves history into his account, making it one of the most trenchant books dealing with corporate social responsibility that I have seen. He succeeds because he shows the link between Deere’s business — making tractors, combines, lawn mowers, harvesters, and log skidders — and its strong, 170-year-plus commitment to integrity. I loved his comments about the importance of Deere’s brand, its insistence on making products that look good and work well, and its decision in 1956 to seek out Finnish-born architect Eero Saarinen to design a sleek, seven-story, glass and unfinished steel headquarters sometimes referred to as the “Versailles of the cornfields.”

Heat from Louisiana
Family is the theme that runs through many corporate histories, especially those dealing with privately owned companies where the founding families are still at the helm. In McIlhenny’s Gold: How a Louisiana Family Built the Tabasco Empire, Jeffrey Rothfeder (a senior editor of this magazine) traces the spicy tale of Tabasco sauce. The McIlhenny company is still owned and controlled by the family that founded it in 1868.

Rothfeder had a tough job, because the McIlhenny family members still active in the company refused to help him. He went around them — interviewing current and former employees and other McIlhenny family members and researching virtually everything that has ever been written about the company. And, in the end, he produced a lively, informative history, one that should interest anyone who has ever dropped a smidgen of Tabasco sauce into a Bloody Mary.

The book is illustrated with black-and-white photographs. You won’t want to miss the shot of McIlhenny employees stuffing those tiny bottles of Tabasco into a cardboard shipping container (they don’t seem to be having a good time). And it has a fascinating tale to tell: in Rothfeder’s words, “unbelievable…at least…when the truth is told.” He discounts official stories told by McIlhenny as fanciful inventions.

McIlhenny has always guarded its history closely. It began on Avery Island, which sits on a salt mountain surrounded by the bayous of the Louisiana coast 140 miles west of New Orleans. (The Dave Robicheaux mystery novels by James Lee Burke are set nearby.) Even the origin of Tabasco sauce is cloaked in mystery. Rothfeder accepts the fact that the sauce, a combination of Tabasco peppers, vinegar, and salt, was concocted by Edmund McIlhenny after he returned from the Civil War and started the company, but he documents that a similar sauce, also called Tabasco, was made and distributed 20 years earlier in New Orleans, where Edmund McIlhenny had been a banker long before going off to fight for the Confederates.

 
 
 
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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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