Twenty years ago, America was suffering from a recession combining high unemployment coupled with inflation. Major industrial companies like Chrysler had to be bailed out, the oil crisis concentrated wealth in the ground and among Arabian plutocrats and the threat from a seemingly dynamic Japan seemed insurmountable.
At the time, business books were afterthoughts gathering dust in the back of bookstores.
That's all changed as America in the past two decades has enjoyed a long boom — 20 years of prosperity punctuated by just one or two fairly mild recessions. With that boom, business achieved a new cultural popularity as CEOs like Lee Iacocca, Donald Trump and Bill Gates became icons. Meanwhile, business books have gained an unprecedented prominence and popularity (as have business magazines like Forbes).
Books on management, chronicles of big deals and businessman biographies have all taken their place on the best-seller lists. CEOs, journalists, consultants and even football coaches — in addition to academics — have weighed in on all things business.
Here is a list of the top five most influential business books of the last 20 years as voted by our panel of experts.
For a full list of all top 20 books, check out the link in the right column. And for a listing of books by genre, read on.
Making the Most of Management
Management books dominate our list, starting with In Search of Excellence by Thomas Peters and Robert H. Waterman (Harper & Row; 1982), the clear favorite among our panelists.
Excellence, which started as an internal project at McKinsey, the consulting firm, caught fire at a time when there was a widespread view that American business could do nothing right and that Japan was the fount of management wisdom.
"The idea that there were well-run American companies was radical at the time," said Tim Forbes, chairman of Forbes.com and one of our panelists. The book took off after being published in the teeth of the 1982 recession.
The reason, according to the authors, was not so much the eight rules of management that the book propounded — verities such as "stick to the knitting" and "stay close to the customer" — but the lively case studies of 43 "excellent" companies.
The popularity of Excellence also touched off the author-cum-consultant phenomenon in which writers use books to sell their advice and their speeches—counsel that appears all the wiser and more valuable because it's printed between covers.
Next on the list is Built to Last by James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras (HarperCollins; 1994). The authors set out to determine what's special about "visionary" companies like The Walt Disney Co., Wal-Mart or Merck. These firms share both longevity and great brand image.
After assuming that outstanding long-term performance was almost certainly the result of a series of strong CEOs and great ideas, Collins and Porras experienced an almost Joycean epiphany: Much more important than a charismatic leader is flexibility — bright people unafraid to "try a lot of stuff and keep what works." In other words, it's not about vision at all. The pursuit of a "core ideology," on the other hand, is vitally important.
Collins made the list a second time with last year's Good to Great (HarperCollins). In this book, Collins advises management on how to turn good companies into "great" ones.
If Built to Last and In Search of Excellence focused on achieving greatness, Reengineering the Corporation by Michael Hammer and James A. Champy (HarperCollins; 1993) concentrates on restoring it. The book propounds case studies from divisions of Ford Motor, IBM and Taco Bell.
With Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (Simon & Schuster; 1990), author Stephen R. Covey became the unabashed champion of personal management. A dozen years after its publication it remains on best-seller lists — with more than 10 million copies sold. The real wonder is why, despite so many people having purchased the book, the average guy is still no more effective today than he was a decade ago.
The book even gave rise to a public company of its own, FranklinCovey, an "an international learning and performance solutions company" with 2001 sales of $525 million.
Before Peters and Waterman there was Peter Drucker. While most of his groundbreaking work on management was published before 1982, our panel gave a nod to the master, naming his The Essential Drucker (HarperBusiness; 2001) compendium as one of the most influential business books of the era.
Telling the Tale in Narrative
Some of our panelists thought that books like Barbarians at the Gate didn't belong on a list of business books because they are not about how to conduct business. But the fact remains: well-written nonfictional narratives like Barbarians and Liar's Poker continue to exert tremendous influence on how the public views Wall Street and the world of business.
Barbarians at the Gate by Bryan Burrough and John Helyar (HarperCollins; 1990) chronicled a single transaction, the 1988 leveraged buyout of RJR Nabisco. Today the final number on the deal — $25 billion — seems almost quaint, as do the excesses of the characters involved. But at the time it was the largest takeover in Wall Street history and buyout shop Kohlberg Kravis Roberts' victory over Ross Johnson and RJR's management helped earmark an era.
Liar's Poker (W.W. Norton; 1989) by a then unknown bond salesman named Michael Lewis became a No. 1 best seller soon after its publication in 1989. Lewis himself says he "doesn't think of it as a business book, but as a book that happens to be set in the business world."
No matter, the author says he still gets letters from readers saying they read the book and decided against a career on Wall Street — and an equal number of letters from those who decided the opposite. "In the end maybe its influence evens out."
The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell (Little Brown; 2000) is not a narrative book in the traditional sense, and it lands in this category more out of default than design. Gladwell's erudite analysis describes how "[i]deas and products and messages and behaviors spread just like viruses do." This idea, of course, is not limited to business. The book, however, has become a favorite of the marketing and sales elites of corporate America.
Den of Thieves by James B. Stewart (Simon & Schuster; 1991) described the darker side of Wall Street in the 1980s. The story of Ivan Boesky, Dennis Levine and Michael Milken — world-beaters who all went to prison — is, among other things, a precursor to the run of scandals today.
Lewis makes the list again with The New New Thing (W.W. Norton 2000), his story of uber-entrepreneur Jim Clark and his second foray into the then-new, now-passé Internet economy with Healtheon. By the time the book was published, the era it portrayed was nearly over, leading one panelist to call it "a postscript to an amazing era."
Biography, or How I Got Rich and Powerful
CEO biographies have become publishing staples. The book that started the trend, Iacocca, (Bantam; 1985) didn't quite make our list. Neither did the equally phenomenal Trump: The Art of The Deal (Random House; 1988) — though it came close, as did Katharine Graham's Pulitzer Prize-winning Personal History (Knopf; 1997).
But the more recent Jack: Straight from the Gut (Warner; 2001), by former General Electric honcho Jack Welch, one of the most celebrated CEOs of the era (even with the divorce), did make the grade. Welch wrote the book with the help of Business Week's John Byrne, who also wrote Chainsaw: The Notorious Career of Al Dunlap in the Era of Profit-At-Any-Price.
In a more historical vein is The House of Morgan by Ron Chernow (Atlantic Monthly Press; 1990). The sweeping narrative traces the trajectory of the J.P. Morgan empire from its obscure beginnings in Victorian London to the crash of 1987. It won the 1990 National Book Award for nonfiction and our panel placed it eighth on our list.
Chernow just missed making our list a second time with his The Warburgs (Random House; 1993), an earlier book about a slightly less impressive banking dynasty. He also wrote Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. (Random House; 1998).
In his day, Rockefeller was the richest man alive. The richest man today, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates has also taken the time to write a couple of books, The Road Ahead (Viking; 1995) and Business @ the Speed of Thought (Warner; 2000). Neither, alas, makes our list.
The Investing Obsession
Over the last 20 years, investing has been transformed from a serious — if slightly dry — profession into a national obsession and a favorite spectator sport. Publishers, of course, have caught on and are forever offering books with new tales of buying low and selling high.
Most of these books tend to come and go. Investing best sellers in the genre such as books by Robert Kiyosaki, Suze Orman and Peter Lynch barely rated a mention among our panelists. One book that did register was The Buffett Way: Investment Strategies of the World's Greatest Investor by Robert Hagstrom (John Wiley & Sons; 1991). Our panel's reaction to the book (ranked #17) is further proof, if any were needed, that Buffett's stock has never been higher.
Other books gaining votes for a variety of reasons were Dow 36,000 by James K. Glassman and Kevin Hassett (Times Books; 1999) and Stocks for the Long Run by Jeremy J. Siegel (Irwin; 1994).
Lynch's One Up on Wall Street (Simon & Schuster; 1989), once read by everyone, finished well out of the money. Finally The Beardstown Ladies' Common-Sense Investment Guide (Hyperion; 1994) — champion of the everyman investor — was mentioned once or twice. One panelist called it "sad, weird and prophetic that the results were fraudulent."
For more, go to Forbes.com..