Last Updated Apr 5, 2011 12:29 PM EDT
The following five books span a range of business topics, from building one of the first corporations to launching a new industry to creating the foundation of modern banking and lending.
Here are the books I consider the five best business biographies to read:
- Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow. Granted he had an affair, was blackmailed, and later was killed in a duel, but along the way he also almost singlehandedly created public (rather than private) finance in the United States and, along with Washington and a few others, was largely responsible for ensuring America survived its formative years. If you have an axe to grind where the U.S. financial and banking systems are concerned, blame Hamilton. (But first try to think of a better system; Hamilton's vision has survived for a couple hundred years.)
- The First Tycoon by T.J. Stiles. Cornelius Vanderbilt arguably did more than any other individual to create modern capitalism and a corporate economy. He also foreshadowed our cult of celebrity; Mark Twain said of Vanderbilt, "You seem to be the idol of... a swarm of small souls who sing of your unimportant private habits and sayings and doings as if your millions gave them dignity." If you hate corporate life, blame Vanderbilt. But don't argue with his success -- at one time he was worth one out of every twenty dollars in circulation. Take that, Bill Gates.
- Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr by Ron Chernow. Bean counters of the world, unite. Rockefeller started as an accountant and ended the richest man in the world. Obsessive attention to detail, ruthlessly competitive, calm in a crisis, willing to make tough (even merciless) decisions, great at spotting talent, infamously greedy, famously generous. He monopolized the oil business, then turned philanthropist. Some biographies reduce people to one-dimensional caricatures; Chernow fleshes out Rockefeller as a person. If a new commodity -- oil wasn't new but emerging industries made it valuable -- revolutionizes business you'll know what to do. And you'll know how to give all the money you make away as well.
- Andrew Carnegie by David Nasaw. Tim Ferriss, eat your heart out -- Carnegie was at one point the richest man in the world while generally only working a few hours a day. Started out with little education, no money, no network or "tribe." Focused on technological advances that ensured he stayed the low-cost producer, held on to profits so he could snap up struggling businesses during economic downturns. Built a steel conglomerate, sold it to J.P. Morgan (the man, not the company), then set out to give all his money away. Came close, donating approximately 90% of his net worth to found universities, schools, libraries, and charitable organizations. And if you think you have to be tall, trim, and good-looking to be successful, at five feet tall a bearded Carnegie looked like a miniature Santa. (David's next book is a biography of Joseph Kennedy, no slouch himself as an entrepreneur: Hollywood, banking, Wall Street, real estate, political dynasty builder.)
- The People's Tycoon by Steven Watts. Henry Ford proves you don't have to be first to be successful. Didn't invent the automobile or car manufacturing. Just did it better than anyone else. Didn't invent the assembly line. Just did it better. Proved customers will often embrace fewer choices in return for lower cost and greater reliability. Doubled workers' wages while shortening the work day, creating one of the first mass production manufacturing systems staffed by well-paid skilled workers. Ford believed in the "redemptive power of material goods." He'd be right at home among today's marketers.
- Caesar by Adrian Goldsworthy. You know he came, he saw, he conquered, and he spoke some of the most famous last words ("Et tu, Brute?") a person never actually said. But did you know Caesar would also blend perfectly into today's business world? Caesar was a master at building a personal brand, not only because he pioneered the Donald Trump comb-over. Played politics like a maestro, networked like a fiend, built a vast web of clients who owed their careers and fortunes to him -- and backed it all up with world-class fighting and leadership skills. On the side he turned a republic into an empire (Augustus saw implementation through to completion, but still.) Goldsworthy's is the best one-volume Caesar biography I've read; by the end you'll want to go out and conquer your own territory. Just beware the Ides of March.