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Heroes, Historical Consulting, and Marquis James

The roots of historical consulting lie in the early to mid-20th century when corporations began to see their stories as an asset even as professional historians grew more specialized and less interested in institutions. Two biographers led the field. Alan Nevins attempted to craft compelling and contemporary history that met academic standards. Marquis James, on the other hand, favored more historically remote subjects and a more sensational approach.

Marquis James grew up in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the “Cherokee Strip,” the newly opened Oklahoma Indian lands where rapacity (toward both native Americans and less fortunate settlers) was part of daily life. In the 1910s James became a journalist, reaching the height of the profession in reporting on the 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial” that pitted legends William Jennings Bryan against Clarence Darrow.

Then James began the work that had an immediate impact on American popular history, writing biographies of Sam Houston, Andrew Jackson, and John Nance Garner (Franklin Roosevelt’s first vice president). In these works, James demonstrated both an enduring strength: the ability to tell a good story; and fatal weakness: the tendency to see the heroic individual as the locomotive of history.

In 1941, in telling the life story of Alfred I. DuPont, James turned from political biography to business history. Two insurance company histories and books on Texaco and The Bank of America followed. James did meticulous research, but he invariably interpreted his sources to the credit of larger-than-life characters above all else.

This preference for the heroic made James a celebrated author in his day (he won two Pulitzer Prizes in the 1930s) and a forgotten one in ours. For in building up his heroes, James stripped away historical complexities, including the possibility that the bald-faced exploitation which American culture countenanced, and in which many of its legends participated, was anything but heroic.

It seems that at least one of Marquis James’s clients figured this out. In the late 1940s, J. Peter Grace, CEO of the chemical company that his grandfather had built by stripping Latin American countries of guano, commissioned a business biography of the founder.  But when James completed the manuscript, Grace buried it, apparently realizing that documenting in admiring prose the exploitative underpinnings of the W. R. Grace & Company would undermine already fragile relations in Latin America. Merchant Adventurer: The Story of W. R. Grace did not see the light of day until 1993, a year after J. Peter Grace stepped down as CEO.

Today, historical consulting involves much more than the writing of books as it did in the days of Marquis James. And it also must involve much more than reflexively repackaging the one-dimensional legends and self-promotional stories that may have passed as history in an earlier day.

Perspective Improves Corporate History Books

Over the years I have spoken to hundreds of potential clients interested in corporate history books. Nearly all understood that there is a difference between history and public relations, but few seemed to know what it was. One company even got a proposal from me, handed it over to its PR team, and came back later disappointed with the result—but not sure why. It was perspective that was lacking.

Among the things that good historians can bring to corporate history books that no one else can is the ability to put things into a broader context, adding dimension and depth to the story of a single firm. That requires two things often lacking in the corporate suite: the willingness to spread the credit beyond the organization, and the inclination and ability to take a hard look  at the organization from the outside in as well as from the inside out.

Putting your company story into historical perspective is not easy, but it brings great benefits.  Context can breathe life into founding legends, cast a new light on corporate successes and failures, and help readers recognize the familiar in the past.

“You Didn’t Build That”

When Barak Obama told an audience in Roanoke Virginia that “If you’ve got a business . . . you didn’t build that,” he was skewered, and rightly so. It was a surprisingly inept speech from a usually adept speaker. But if you look at the words surrounding that unfortunate phrase you see not a denial of the value of entrepreneurship but a plea for consideration of context in corporate history, that success depends on things beyond the business, like infrastructure, the internet, and good government.

If Obama erred in one direction, most amateur corporate historians err in the other: painting corporate leaders as unfailingly courageous, uncommonly capable, and singlehandedly responsible for success or failure. Indeed, some corporate history books are even structured on a “one chapter per CEO” basis. Not only is this a staggering failure of imagination, it also papers over underlying contextual shifts that can be far more important than the personal qualities of individual leaders.

Apple Macintosh, 1984

In the context of the mid-1980s, for example, when Apple lost its battle with Microsoft to control the PC market, Steve Jobs came off as an ineffective executive. Twenty years later the CEO who failed to see the importance of open architecture was hailed as an iPhone visionary. But in truth only the context changed. In both cases Jobs insisted on integrating hardware and software.

Perspective does not always get squeezed out of the C-Suite—in rare cases an entire corporate culture has been built upon recognition that it was context more than commercial savvy that led to success. While I was researching my history of the engineering consulting firm MPR Associates for my book Sustaining Excellence, it became clear that the company’s three founders “didn’t,” in Obama’s words, “build that.” Instead they had adopted a corporate culture and an engineering consulting model wholesale from the United States Nuclear Navy. Admiral Hyman Rickover, who had never served in the company was as much a founder as anyone.  MPR, to its credit, was glad to acknowledge that debt.

Taking the Outside View

I have known of corporate historians whose expectations regarding sources were pretty low. Give them some annual reports, scrapbooks, some internal papers and photographs, and a few oral history interviews and they could produce a passable story. But clients deserve better, and a good historian should be driven to provide it. The client relationship and use of internal records all push an author to take a particular perspective—that of looking from the inside the company out.

There are hazards to this approach. First is the problem of evidence—how do you know that a particular story, told over and over again in company publications is entirely accurate? In the case of one professional organization that I worked for, its first “historian” more than a century ago, had gotten the sequence of events leading up to the founding wrong. That sequence was passed down—incorrectly—for nearly 150 years. How is the historian to know?

When I take on a project, I begin with a look from the outside in, starting with a review of books and articles about the particular business, discipline, or specialty in question. I then pivot to an in-depth newspaper search about the corporation. In doing so I help inoculate myself from buying uncritically into legend and lore that may have long ago come untethered from fact. In the case of the professional association’s founding sequence, it seemed “off” to me, so I dove into my 150-year-old newspaper collection and figured out what really happened.

There are even greater consequences when the corporate historian never decamps from inside company walls. Competitors might be overlooked, demonized, or worst of all, not recognized for their contribution to the overall business. Particular corporate initiatives may be chalked up to “innovation” or a mere whim when they actually resulted from a competitor’s insight or even regulatory change. There was a time when internal company records like annual reports and board of directors meeting minutes laid out the motivations for business decisions in some depth and detail. In the post-World War II era, however, that candor slowly evaporated so that internal sources are often guaranteed to provide only a partial picture at best or to mislead at worst.

Challenging Founding Legends

Most corporations cling to a bold, all-caps, less-than-paragraph length founding legend that inevitably revolves around a word like vision. Not to discredit those entrepreneurs who have truly been uncommonly foresighted, but in many cases business enterprises begin with a good idea, a willingness to take risks, and a context which minimizes the hazards to the point that the business can succeed.

I have written corporate history books for two of the great long-haul trucking pioneers, Consolidated Freightways, and Roadway. Only the former fits the “up from the bootstraps” narrative preferred by the writers and consumers of corporate history. Leland James progressed from lone trucker to CEO of Consolidated Freightways because he was one of the first to the field in the thinly settled Pacific Northwest where, despite the delays caused by bad roads, he could still provide faster service than the railroads.

Leland James of Consolidated Freightways

Roadway’s Galen Roush on the other hand, lived a much different story. Roush never drove a truck, and by the time he started business in the 1930s the nation’s industrial heartland was crisscrossed with good roads and trucking startups. It was context that provided Roush with his advantage, for he started out in Akron, Ohio, home to the world’s largest rubber manufacturers. Firestone and Goodyear diverted their loads from trains to trucks despite the higher shipping costs in order to burn up more tires and thus build their own businesses.

The Consolidated Freightways founding story may be more conventional than Roadway’s, but later developments in its corporate history show how attention to context can make past accomplishments all the more interesting. In the expansive western states where Consolidated Freightways operated it was essential to haul as much load as possible. The states though, influenced by railroads and seeking to protect their pavement, put strict length limits on trucks. In 1940 Consolidated Freightways manufactured one of the first practical cab-over-engine tractors in order to get around this contextual hurdle. These allowed additional freight to be carried where the hood of the truck used to be. Consolidated Freightways no longer survives, but its manufacturing offshoot, Freightliner, is now one of the world’s leading truck manufacturers.

In these cases, as in so many others, contextual factors like these were well-known to company old-timers and most writers would surely mention them as being important. But in line with the writer’s dictum “show, don’t tell,” whenever possible I build these contextual substories into the corporate history itself so that the reader is just not told, but experiences through description just how much of an obstacle state length limits were or how much an advantage being located in the tire capital of the world could be.

The Familiar and Fascinating in a Relived Past

This, in the end, is the greatest advantage of maintaining a wide sense of perspective in writing corporate history books. Lived experience takes place on a broad stage, becoming ever more complex due to endless encounters with unexpected things.  Relived experience (that is, history) must offer the same kinds of encounters if it is to come to life in the mind of the reader.

Most writers understand this and so make sure to include “history” in their accounts. Worst case efforts, which I encounter all too often, shrink the stage and turn the history into mere props.  A paragraph might begin by evoking the “Gay Nineties” or the “Great Depression” in a few predictable stereotypes before pivoting back to the internal company story with no indication of how or why those larger landmarks mattered.

The Blue Eagle was issued to firms that complied with the New Deal’s “Codes of Fair Competition.”

If you know your context, you know that seemingly abstract national stories do matter. You can show your reader how they mattered rather than simply include them as so much window dressing. For example, one of the earliest federal initiatives of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal was an effort to create “Codes of Fair Competition” for all industrial sectors. That story is one of those that I often tell to make the connection between corporate history and the Great Depression.  When it comes to trade associations the connection is even more direct—existing organizations were often put in charge of particular industry codes, and where one did not exist, they were often created with the blessing of the Roosevelt administration.  Since the effort was ultimately pronounced unconstitutional it is little known today. Still, its historical consequences and its role in a corporate history can be profound. But you have to know to look for it.

A similar thing happened around the time of World War I. That conflict came at the end of what historians call the Progressive Era, a time of sustained reform that transformed America in countless ways. When I began researching the history of the Associated General Contractors of America, the official story was that President Wilson had personally asked contractors to form a trade association. But there was no evidence of that. One of my co-authors even searched the papers of Woodrow Wilson at the Library of Congress, but we never found an indication that this could be true. Instead we found a story that made much more sense—that the organization got its spark not from a war-weary president but from the United States Chamber of Commerce, itself the exemplar of Progressivism in the American business community.

And that, in the end, is the best reason to have a professional historian writing corporate history books. Your institution’s story does not simply stand alone—it is part of the complicated and endlessly fascinating sweep of the American story.

Contact me if you would like to talk about bringing new perspective to your corporate history book.

Allan Nevins and the Roots of Historical Consulting

Allan Nevins was a journalist, biographer, oral historian, and chronicler of corporations. He was never officially a historical consultant. His life’s work, however, set standards that every historian worth his or her hire should follow, namely: that history should be well-written, that it should be informed by lived experience through oral history, and that it should deal empathetically yet honestly with institutions—even if they are footing the bill.

Once the great American histories were written by literary gentlemen. As historians professionalized in the late 19th century, however, they traded broad subjects and popular audiences for specialized monographs and audiences of fellow academics. Early on Nevins wanted no part of that—he made his living as a journalist. But Nevins could not stay away from history. In his spare time he began writing biographies for a lay audience, one of which won a Pulitzer Prize. In 1931 Columbia University made Nevins a full professor, even though he had never earned a PhD.

His first books were relatively uncontroversial biographies of politicians and presidents, but in the 1940s Nevins took up the life of John D. Rockefeller. Convinced by the rise of the wartime “Arsenal of Democracy” that there was a creative as well as a destructive side to the great American business enterprises, Nevins offered an unusually balanced portrayal of the man historians had previously preferred to vilify.

By then Nevins was also champion of a new methodology: “oral history.” Having been a journalist, he understood the importance of the interview. Nevins also realized that as the documentary record gave way to the telephone, historians had to find new ways to capture the past. In 1948 he founded an ongoing oral history program at Columbia.

It was in the 1950s that Nevins came closest to becoming a historical consultant, as co-author of a multi-volume history of the Ford Motor Company. Not surprisingly, Nevins approached Henry Ford and his company with an open mind, drew upon oral history, and crafted an engaging and edifying story. “It requires imagination to penetrate the past,” Nevins wrote. It also required imagination to work for Ford without working for Ford. Although the company had commissioned Nevins to write the history, it sent the checks to Columbia University.

Acker Book Published

New Corporate History Published

I’m happy to announce the publication of my 18th corporate history book, The Story of Acker: The 200-Year History of America’s Oldest Wine Shop. This was a terrific project for a number of reasons: the client had very little existing historical material, meaning nearly every stage, from archival research through oral history interviewing and writing, brought a steady stream of epiphanies. I packed four stories between the covers: the tale of an immigrant family; a study of one of the nation’s largest luxury grocers; the profile of an Upper West Side package store; and the account of the creation and explosive growth of the world’s leading auctioneer of fine wines.

Like my other most successful projects, this one was fully supported by top management. Chairman John Kapon worked overtime through the holidays with the designer, printer, and me to finish the book in time for Acker’s gala birthday event on Saturday, February 8. I want to thank the other members of the Acker team and especially Michael and Suzanne Welch at Abzorb Design, Stewart Jordan and the Jamie Stotz at Westland Printers, and Jen Giambrone and Emily Sullivan at HAI, which served as prime contractor for the project.

Building Your Brand

Building Your Brand with Corporate History

It is tempting to think that you can define your corporate personality—to build your brand—out of little more than public relations and advertising. In fact, a corporate personality is something that develops over time, the result of months or years of hard work, employee relations, and customer communications.

To understand that corporate personality is to make sense of a complex past; to uncover the story of how the brand grew and developed, guided by both internal initiatives and external factors. The best way to do this is through history—pulling from written, visual, and remembered records to create a coherent narrative that explains how the brand developed and conveys what the brand can bring to customers in the future. Whether leveraged in a book, an exhibit, or a digital history, the cost of a high-quality history project can be comparable to that of a public relations or advertising campaign, but when you compare the impact, an investment in a powerful, authentic brand equity can be a bargain. Moreover, the research you do and the interviews that you capture will be an invaluable corporate resource, otherwise lost, for generations to come.

Consider the optics. The typical “About” page on many corporate websites contain a few fragments of origin lore, generalizations about the intervening decades, and unsupported claims about the company’s “mission” and “commitment.” If you spare no expense to ensure that your products are faultless and your services are expert, why cut corners with your story?

Beyond external appearance is the matter of internal integrity. If your employees do not know how your company came to do what it does, then the entirety of your organization is unlikely to succeed. A compelling corporate story serves as a foundation upon which a strong corporate culture can rest.

But it is in terms of strategy that an investment in history earns its greatest returns. Respect for an organization’s history, and evidence of a commitment to honor that past drives most successful companies forward. When you honor your heritage, you not only provide employees with a sense of mission, you reassure customers of your intention and commitment to your business. History is the ballast that keeps a company upright through the tumult of changing technologies and transforming markets. For a company that has weathered tough times, the value of the lessons learned is tremendous—and incorporating those lessons into the corporate culture is something for which history is well suited.

Nearly every enterprise is the product of a complex history. Telling your corporate history presents an opportunity, if not an obligation, for building your brand with corporate history to show how your company intends to live up to its past in the future.

Corky

“Corky:” A Telling Holiday Tradition

It takes minimal equipment: a table, a glass, and a champagne cork. This game began by accident a few years ago and has become a family tradition. It’s a simple thing that says a lot about our family culture. We usually ignore the living room and gather in the kitchen with good food, drink, and the occasional activity. We’re all fiercely competitive, and my daughter prefers literal diminutive names. (Her pets were “fishy,” and “tabby;” our game is “Corky.”) In researching a biography or corporate history that is also a family story, this is exactly the kind of telling tradition I look for. If anyone ever writes about my family, they’d better mention Corky.

A Time of Year for Reflection

A Time of Year for Reflection?

Some of the busiest times for writers, publishers, and purchasers of organizational history are during the year-end holidays. Is it because the holidays are a time for reflection so there’s a greater felt need for history? Maybe. Perhaps most of us are reflecting on how much work still needs to be done. Regardless, those tasked with managing history projects for their business usually have competing priorities throughout the year, so reviewing the manuscript or pulling the trigger on publication gets pushed back until after the working day, week, or season, is over. I can date nearly all my Christmas vacations to which comps I was comparing or what layout I was proofing, often during odd hours under the tree while the family was sleeping. It’s no different this year. To all you historians, communicators, designers, printers, and proofreaders—happy holidays! I’m with you, reflecting, and also trying to meet a deadline.

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