Monday, May 26, 2008

Joe Nocera's Good Guys & Bad Guys

Joe Nocera’s Good Guys and Bad Guys

Read dozens of books about heroes and crooks

and I’ve learned much from both of their styles.

-Jimmy Buffett

One of my favorite business books is Mark McCormick’s What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School.

The 1986 book had a huge influence on me. McCormick encouraged readers to write letters to people and say what you admire about them.

I always meant to write to McCormick and never did. I did write to Joe Nocera.

In 1994, I had reviewed Nocera’s book, A Piece of the Action, for the Lexington Herald Leader. I was completely blown away by Nocera’s work. He did exhaustive research in the style of David Halberstam or David McCullough. It was combined with writing that flows like Tom Wolfe. I’ve re-read the book 50 times and still find nuggets of wisdom.

I wrote and told Joe how much I admired him. He wrote back. We’ve followed each other’s careers since then.

Joe had been writing for Esquire and GQ when we connected. He went on to be the Executive Editor at Fortune and now a columnist for the New York Times.

His latest book, Good Guys and Bad Guys, is a collection of writings along Joe’s life journey.

Like the Jimmy Buffett song, Nocera noted that villains of business have good traits and business heroes have flaws.

Those of us in business need heroes. We need a realistic dream where we work hard and become the next Warren. We need to know that Warren has some flaws, (such as bad dietary habits), like we do.

Nocera looks at business people in a balanced way.

Movies and television tend to stereotype business people as ego driven and ethically challenged. Businessmen come across as some combination of JR Ewing on Dallas and Michael Douglas character in Wall Street.

They are really more complicated. Nocera allows us to see the nuance of that complexity.

Nocera said that in 1982, he was drawn from political journalism into business journalism. He saw the passion and drama of business stories in an era before CNBC and 24 hour business news.

Nocera has spent time with the great business leaders of this era. His insights into Steven Jobs and Warren Buffett are fascinating but my favorite chapter is one on Michael Milken.

Sometime in the late 1980’s, I became fascinated with Milken and read every book written about him. Depending on the author, you got dramatically different portraits. Some books were intensely critical while others were puff pieces.

Joe wrote a 1991 article for GQ that nailed the Milken story. It balanced good versus bad.

Like Nocera does with many famous figures.

Since the book covers a 25 year spread, Nocera gives a historical perspective to recent events. A good example was the saga of how Rupert Murdoch took over the Wall Street Journal.

In a chapter called, “How the Bancrofts Blew it” Nocera includes a historic 1998 story in Fortune, when Elisabeth Goth Chelberg, a Kentucky horsewoman, started asking innocent questions about the company’s stock price and management.

She is part of the Bancroft family, which had own the publishing empire for 100 years. Rather than getting the family to” act like an owner,” Elisabeth was given the family cold shoulder.

If they had listened to Elisabeth in 1998, they could have addressed the long standing problems. 10 years later, it was too late.

Some might view the Bancroft’s as good guys. They put out an award winning newspaper. If you owned WSJ stock, they were bad guys. Management lost billions in businesses they didn’t understand and missed numerous opportunities. The company violated their investors trust.

Joe Nocera has knocked on the door of every business mover and shaker of the past 25 years. This collection inspires and provides a historic reference. Most of all, it captures our attention.

The characters depicted are the people who have made American business what it is. They encourage and motivate us those of us who seek to follow in their footsteps.

Sometimes business leaders are good guys and sometimes they are bad guys.

We can learn much from both of their styles.

Don McNay is the Chairman of McNay Settlement Group in Richmond, Ky. And the author of Winners, Losers and What to Do When You Win the Lottery. You can write to him at or other award winning columns at