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Sedition at the Office

Mavericks at Work

by RALPH NADER

William C. Taylor was a rosy-cheeked Princeton intern when he began his rise to fame and fortune, working with the Multinational Monitor magazine. As a freshly minted Princeton graduate, he worked on the book The Big Boys: Power and Position in American Business as a co-author with me. After that it was the Sloan School at MIT, editor of the Harvard Business Review, and a co-founder of the sensationally successful Fast Company during the dot-com craze. Now comes the co-author (with Polly LaBarre) of the forthcoming (October) sure-to-be bestseller Mavericks at Work.

I’ve read the galleys and find it a multi-splendored information engine about innovative business approaches ­ so much so that when you get over its exciting, fluid prose, you are left with more questions than the book answers. Which means, given its genre, that it is a very good book indeed, steering you, as it does, to explore your own "maverick" territory.

Taylor and LaBarre take you swiftly through a journey of interviews and insights that reveal the success of "unlearning" of "undoing" traditional business practices, of doing just the opposite of conventional commerce and succeeding. Like Southwest Airlines does.

The opening chapter introduces the readers to the most unlikely banker, the founder of ING Direct USA, Arkadi Kuhlmann. He attacks the banking industries’ exorbitant fees, rails against credit card rip-offs and the sales push to get people "to save too little, invest too recklessly, and spend too much." This is sedition, with fast-growing rewards. ING Direct is presently taking in a billion dollars a month in deposits. Now the country’s largest internet bank is giving higher interest rates to depositors and charging lower rates to its mortgage customers, say Taylor and LaBarre.

Their treks across the country has produced story after story of maverick behavior in a remarkable range of companies ­ a construction company, an ad agency, a cable network, little known startups with revolutionary breakthroughs in telecommunications and data-center automation, blazingly creative toy and game designer and vendor. A gold mining company provided formerly confidential data for its Internet $500,000 contest invitation to get the world’s smartest geologists and scientists helping them find the next 6 million ounces of gold on its lands.

There is the anarchically successful huge annual Edinburgh Fringe Festival for artistic talent in Scotland. Can there be a new idea in selling sandwiches? Try Potbelly Sandwich Works creating a ‘cauldron of consumer passion’ around its aesthetic delights of sound, color, and the unusual décor. Reasonable prices for good food, write Taylor and LaBarre.

The book’s description of the state of the art recruitment entrepreneurs, such as Michael Homula of FirstMerit Bank, was one of the most rewarding parts of the book. How to find experienced people by imaginative techniques.

DPR Construction, Inc. out of Redwood City, California catches the reader’s eye because it is determined to show how to be "quantifiably different and better, a truly great construction company," declared cofounder and president Doug Woods.

The touted standards DPR sets for itself are breathtaking. Listen to Woods’ interview: "This industry hasn’t changed the way it does business a whole lot in the last hundred years. We stand for something."

Taylor and LaBarre note that DPR "takes on and remedies some of the most notorious pitfalls of construction, the designed-in headaches that give the industry such a bad name: unreliable price estimates, endless cost overruns, delays and slipped schedules, completed projects with a never-ending list of fixes, lawsuits and recriminations between builders and clients."

I found the least persuasive choice for a Maverick in the book to be Commerce Bank. The authors conceded that the Bank offers lower interest rates in return for personal, wowee service and an atmosphere of exotic friendliness and team spirit by the employees whose official company exclamation is Wow!

Commerce Bank culture is indeed spirited and colorful and seemingly in perpetual motion. Some irritating practices like other banks’ exploiting your deposited check’s float are rejected.

But the Mavericks profiled by Taylor and LaBarre prompt a larger question about the book: if these astute and imaginative ways of doing business are so profitable, what keeps them from diffusing promptly into the canyons of the giant corporations that are mired in mediocrity or the traditional industries that are profitably stagnant. Where is the mimicry if not by copycat, then at least in attitude?

Well, maybe Taylor will cover some of these curiosities on ABC’s Good Morning America where he is supposed to appear four times in October on the theme ­ Maverick of the Week ­ or in both authors’ extensive nationwide tour. The last thing they need is a "gee whiz" reception about their selected companies. Maverick readers have to be skeptics and push the envelope not only further ­ to what benefits for the people ­ but also deeper too ­ will these companies be around in ten years?

As Tom Peters learned some years ago after he published his super-best seller In Search of Excellence, some "excellence" just didn’t have the legs.