LONDON — Here's a fearless prediction for 2009: One of the key cultural trends will be the rediscovery of books published at the height of the global economic boom that explained why prosperity was an illusion and accurately predicted the collapse of the house of cards.
One of the works certain to get a lot of attention is The Puritan Gift written by Scottish brothers Will and Ken Hopper and first published early in 2007.
The reason? Not just that it accurately predicted the collapse of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae in the U.S. a year before that event ushered in the current downturn.
Or that it contains pithy observations like, "Credit is to the economy what steroids are to an athlete, it enhances performance but, unless used in moderation, at serious cost to the economic health of the nation."
Or that it scorns Alan Greenspan. "We thought Greenspan was an idiot," recalls Will Hopper, spokesman for the two brothers.
No, the real reason it is likely to find a wider readership is that the book takes a very, very long view of how the U.S. economy got into it current predicament.
That is fitting considering the Hopper brothers have been interacting with the American business scene for a very, very long time. Ken Hopper is 82 and Will is 79. Will Hopper, retired as a senior executive at posh British merchant bank, Morgan Grenfell, a decade ago and now runs his own investment fund, specializing in backing projects in emerging democracies.
Hopper explains his older brother, Ken, began working on The Puritan Gift almost twenty years ago. An engineer by training, he had spent the early part of his career working for American firms and marveled at the difference in management styles to those in Britain.
The American companies of that time, the 1950s and 1960s, were managed with dynamism and innovative skill compared to the tradition-bound enterprises Ken knew in Britain. But by the 1980s that had changed.
"America was in a panic, if you remember," Will Hopper says. "The Japanese had taken over the electronics industry. Honda and Toyota were making huge inroads."
The reason for this was apparent to Ken Hopper: American management had lost its edge. It was becoming more British.
Ken Hopper went to work on "The Puritan Gift" as soon as he retired. Will Hopper joined the project several years ago when ill health forced his older brother to slow the work pace. The duo claim that from the beginning of the American experiment, superior management was at the heart of the society's success.
"In 1630, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was set up using management concepts. They were trying to build the Kingdom of God on Earth but understood that was a practical endeavor," says Hopper. "They recruited according to need. We need X number of carpenters and Y number of preachers, lawyers and so on. We need their skills in a specific time frame. They needed to be collegiate and work in teams."
American management culture reached its apogee in World War II and the decades immediately following. In those days, when Ken Hopper first started working for American companies managers learned their trade on the job. They acquired "domain" knowledge.
"After 21 or 22 years they knew their companies inside out and if they had ability could be promoted to top management."
Now, of course, Hopper laments, no one works for twenty years for a single company. No one has "domain" knowledge.
Instead they have been replaced by professional managers with MBA's who are "licensed to practice management the way doctors are licensed to practice medicine" and there is no comparison between the two. He retains special scorn for management consultants, "a cult," he says, particularly those from McKinsey. "Nearly every big scandal in recent years has happened to firms advised by McKinsey," he says.
In short, the Puritan approach was lost. Managers managed for themselves, and not the good of their enterprises or the society in which they functioned. This was particularly true in the industry Hopper knows best, banking.
The book uses Citibank as a case history of what happens when professional managers take over a financial institution. If you are one of the tens of thousands of people who Citibank is laying off you already know the consequences of being led by a management professional rather than a banker with "domain" knowledge of your institution.
So what is the solution to America's management crisis? Will Hopper returns to World War II and urges those who sit on corporate boards to study the approach of General Douglas MacArthur in reorganizing Japanese enterprises.
Quoting the numbers by heart he says, "MacArthur dismissed 1,937 senior executives in 152 important businesses," and replaced them with "middle managers" who actually understood what their businesses did.
Dismissing incompetent managers is the easy part. Re-instilling Puritan virtue in the conduct of business, Scotsman Will Hopper's other prescription for getting American business going again, may not be so simple.