Having ghostwritten books and put out my own on marketing’s rich history, I have a grasp of what books do well. Self-help, leadership, romance, and wellness are hot categories. So, too, is true crime, and not only in the form of books. Podcasts, streaming content, traditional television, and long-read articles abound, sharing the depravity and cruelness of the human condition to huge audiences.
True crime is not my genre though I must admit, while cutting the lawn, I will listen to the podcast version of NBC’s Dateline. Spoiler alert: 99 times out of 100, the boyfriend or husband did it, or, the girlfriend or wife.
What I want to share are books that have fascinated me going back 30 years. That is, business crime. It all started on one of my first business trips. In 1988, I traveled from Winnipeg to Toronto. At the “tender” age of 25, I was a professional fundraiser for nonprofits. I was representing three Winnipeg institutions and soliciting big business Toronto for large corporate cheques.
Between meetings, I entered a Coles bookstore underground the towers of First Canadian Place. Later, in my career, I had an office in the building while working for Price Waterhouse. One book cover called to me from the shelf. The gold embossed lettering and clever title beckoned and enticed.
In the following paragraphs, I recommend my favourite business crime books. Even though it was my first, Contrepreneurs, stands the test of time. Diane Francis, was a journalist for The Financial Post. Her book exposed me to Boiler Rooms (think The Wolf of Wall Street). I learned Canadians perfected this fraudulent and high-pressure scam (so much for being a nation of nice folks!). Other scams, including money laundering and pyramid schemes, engrossed me.
The list is not chronological, it is more by impact. That is why, the fight to control RJR Nabisco lands here. I have read it five times (but hated the tv series…avoid it). Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco by Bryan Burrough and John Helyar is pure gold. It shows how company valuations are often fantasy and how acquisitions are a form of conquering. It is the ultimate story of greed and false glory. The book is amazingly well-researched and written, told in a fascinating narrative. The man, at the centre of it all, is Ross Johnson, was from my hometown of Winnipeg.
Robert Caro is always excellent. His book, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York tells a most unbelievable story. It may not seem to fit with the rest of these books but it does. Moses ran New York from a dodgy public service position for decades. He built an empire and lived like an emperor. Once read, you will never think of New York in the same way. His fingerprints can be found everywhere in the five boroughs and across the state.
Remember the Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken? Den of Thieves by James B. Stewart recounts the seemingly ubiquitous insider trading scandals during the 1980’s. This marked a time of both arrogance and complacency. In other words, greed was supposedly good. Yes, indeedy, the folks in the 80’s were greedy. You will learn this in Connie Bruck’s The Predators’ Ball: The Inside Story of Drexel Burnham and the Rise of the Junk Bond. You would think the name, junk bond, would be a clue.
When Genius Failed: The Rise and Fall of Long-Term Capital Management by Roger Lowenstein is a different story of hubris. When founded in 1993, Long-Term was hailed as the most impressive hedge fund in history. But after four years in which the firm dazzled Wall Street as a $100 billion moneymaking juggernaut, it suddenly suffered catastrophic losses that threatened the stability of the entire financial system. The problem…they believed in mathematical certainty in a very human world.
The names Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling remain scorned. The well-written and entertaining tome: Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron is just too good. Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind brought us into the boardroom and onto dirt bike weekends with these corporate a-holes. Conspiracy of Fools is also highly readable when it comes to Enron.
Why the deep voice and black turtle necks? Theranos founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes was widely seen as the female Steve Jobs. A brilliant Stanford dropout whose startup promised to revolutionize the medical industry. It might have started with a good idea but quickly devolved into a Wizard of Oz scenario with nothing behind the curtain. Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyou will have you shaking your head in disbelief.
The Wizard of Lies by Diana B. Henriques is not only an amazing story of a decades-long shell game but it is a sad indictment of a terrible father. What Bernie Madoff did was not only fool and rob investors, he destroyed what should have been a family legacy. I feel for his sons Mark and Andrew.
Have you seen the 2016 documentary, Sour Grapes? It tells the tale of a high-end wine scammer. Rudy Kurniawan is an example of why I am fascinated with business crime. The guy is so smart, so brazen, that you are forced to wonder, why not play things straight? Billion Dollar Whale is tale of off-the-charts audacity. Similar to Rudy is Tom Wright’s and Bradley Hope’s telling of Jho Low’s nefarious global dealings and extravagant lifestyle (I should say, super extravagant).
If you haven’t read The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis, do. And don’t do a book club avoidance thing and watch the movie only. Lewis is a funny chronicler of white collar crime as evidenced by Liars Poker and Moneyball. For a macro world view, Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Too Big to Fail indicts business and politics in a sweeping but, by no way, complex read. What was at stake? Oh, just the global economy.
I am surprised this car business is still in business. VW was a client of DDB’s where I once worked (going all the way back to the Think Small ad campaign). Faster, Higher, Farther: The Volkswagen Scandal by Jack Ewing reveals the breadth and depth of deception. In this time of green and sustainability, the penalties were too small, the company glaringly unapologetic or contrite.
Ron Chernow knows how to write a biography. Case in point, Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. Here is the book’s promotion, “In the course of his nearly 98 years, Rockefeller was known as both a rapacious robber baron, whose Standard Oil Company rode roughshod over an industry, and a philanthropist who donated money lavishly to universities and medical centers. He was the terror of his competitors, the bogeyman of reformers, the delight of caricaturists—and an utter enigma.” I couldn’t have said it better and it is up to the reader to identify the criminal exploits.
I had a couple of real dotcom bust experiences. One in insurance and one in shipping. I pitched and lost in Palo Alto so the start of this century dredges up visceral memories. Those did not stop me from reading Dot.Con: The Greatest Story Ever Sold by John Cassidy. It was a time of irrational exuberance and too many were swept up in it. A recent entry that covers this time is Uncanny Valley: A Memoir. Anna Weiner lays bare her time in a startup with honesty and transparency while taking personal responsibility.
Published this January, Bubble in the Sun: The Florida Boom of the 1920s and How It Brought on the Great Depression will astound. Christopher Knowlton paints a great picture of a wild time, tons of bad decisions, and incredible excess. It covers the forces that built and wrecked the state. And, you will be engrossed with larger-than-life characters. It is a nonfiction account of the Gatsbys of the south.
There you have it. A round-up of engrossing business crime reads. Will we ever learn…nah. History will repeat.