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Friday, February 1, 1985

Book Review: Managing by Harold Geneen with Alvin Moscow

(Doubleday & Company, Inc., 501 Franklin Avenue, Garden City, NY 11530) 1984
297 pages • $17.95 cloth

Few business leaders can ever hope to match the dazzling record established by Harold S. Geneen in his 17 years as chief executive officer of ITT. Although some of his corporate decisions were reversed by successors after he stepped down in 1977, none will dispute that ITT’s spectacular growth and quickened vitality of the 1960s and early 1970s were entirely the results of Geneen’s brilliant leadership. He was so highly regarded as a managerial wizard that some feared ITT would self-destruct without him.

In the 1970s, however, Geneen became tagged as “controversial” by an often hostile press. Critics gleefully pounced on the company’s political contributions and alleged involvement in the overthrow of Chile’s Allende government to discredit both Geneen and ITT. In this tumultuous period, Geneen was usually too busy running his company to explain himself to the public.

But in retirement, Harold Geneen with his collaborator Alvin Moscow has produced an excellent book that goes far in revealing Geneen’s view of himself and his world of business. Unlike the picture of cunning manipulator and power broker presented by his enemies, the Geneen who emerges in Managing is a man of simple beliefs whose driving force is an almost religious devotion to the principles and practice of good management. Geneen found his greatest self-expression and enjoyment in his work, which completely absorbed his life and most of his waking hours. The book carries little mention of family and friends, and even his recreational interests had a business tie-in. Some would consider his life austere and narrow, despite his great business success, but it’s obvious that Geneen found his business career immensely satisfying and reveled in its problems and challenges.

Although Geneen is a modern manager, he has little patience with management fads such as the currently popular “Theory Z” on the art of Japanese management. “The secret of how to succeed in business or life is that there is no secret,” he asserts. “No secret at all. No formula. No theory.”

But then his own secret starts to come through in a number of highly interesting chapters, and it becomes clear that hard work, efficient planning, close attention to certain details and unwavering pursuit of specific business goals were the elements of his great success. There was no way that Geneen himself could have fully grasped the products and operations of the 250 profit centers in the ITT tent, but he managed to control this empire by demanding careful planning from his managers and holding them accountable for hitting growth and profit targets. The cardinal sin for an ITT manager was to be surprised by events such as strikes and shortages which he had not anticipated in his previous planning.

Geneen, a financial executive in his earlier years, devotes a complete chapter to the importance of “The Numbers” in managing a business. Geneen believes that “the numbers” have a language of their own and can reveal the facts about a business if a person studies them enough. In fact, however, such “numbers” are best understood by executives like Geneen himself, who was really a born manager and drove himself to understand and use the tools of management.

Managing also carries a brief account of Geneen’s own early life and business career. There is a bit of the Horatio Alger, Jr., success story in Geneen’s dogged trek to the heights. Although he appeared in his ITT years as the completely self-confident leader who could not possibly fail, Geneen actually had a lonely childhood and years of painful struggle before he was able to seize the brass ring at ITT. Geneen even had to earn his college degree by attending night classes over an eight-year period. But his experience at a public accounting firm and several major companies finally brought him, as if led by an invisible hand, to the opportunity at ITT. Under Geneen’s leadership, ITT became a major world corporation, and it’s not hard to believe that Geneen’s early struggles to perfect his talents were needed to prepare him for this remarkable task.

Beyond explaining how ITT succeeded in the tortuous and confusing world of conglomeration, Managing also reveals Harold Geneen as a man of high character and decency who wanted only to be left alone to run his company in the most efficient way. Geneen is the sort of person whom the public often misunderstands, and yet needs if we are to maintain and strengthen our business heritage. Geneen takes it for granted that running successful, profitable business operations is a form of high service to the community, and he sees little need to argue this point.

Like Thomas Edison or General George S. Patton, Jr., Geneen is something of an eccentric who has, nonetheless, amazing gifts in his own special field of interest. We don’t have to understand these gifted eccentrics completely in order to benefit from their services. The late Benjamin Rogge used to argue that we would all be better off if we would simply let the superior business manager do his own thing. Maybe Geneen’s Managing will help get that message across, along with offering splendid advice on how to run a business.

  • Melvin D. Barger is a retired corporate public relations representative and writer who lives in Toledo, Ohio. He has been a contributor to The Freeman since 1961.