Madboy – Bonus Post

This blogger skimmed “Madboy” by Richard Kirshenbaum, published in 2011. This ebook is mostly a name-dropping brag-fest.

Granted, the author does have bragging rights as an adman and did provide numerous tips on acquiring clients and maintaining good client relations, and described what it was like working in the ad industry in the 1980’s and 1990’s. But the first anecdote about a major business decision that resulted in a large financial loss, appeared almost halfway through this book. The author did gloze over a few mini-fails prior to that. However, this blogger thinks a career memoir need not put a happy face on every negative story, as though the author is in a job interview. He should be more introspective. Kirshenbaum seemed a tad insecure, and both he and his wife seemed easily starstruck. This blogger is not impressed that he has met and worked with dozens of celebrities in the last few decades.

The author recounted one amusing anecdote involving indecency during a camera shoot in Mississippi. He also made a few rather unfortunate statements:

  • Witty ads for his agency’s first client mentioned politicians famous in the 1980’s, that he said, “…captured the public’s attention, as it hadn’t seen this kind of creativity in the advertising business before.” Doubtful. There is nothing new under the sun.
  • About social networking: “…where now consumers actually control the conversation about brands and have honest and controversial conversations about a company’s brand preferences.” See http://educationanddeconstruction.com/?p=4180
  • Kirshenbaum believes American consumers are fiercely brand-loyal and “…the rise of social media (Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube) influence them.”  Again, see http://educationanddeconstruction.com/?p=4180

Read the book to learn of some of the big-name people Kirshenbaum met through the years, the campaigns and entities he spearheaded, places to which he traveled, what he learned from whom, and what became of his agency.

Four Seasons

The Book of the Week is “Four Seasons, The Story of a Business Philosophy” by Isadore Sharp, published in 2009. In the early 1950’s, in his early 20’s, the author worked with his father, a construction contractor. He served as construction manager, rental agent, salesman, and financier. He parlayed his experience into building hotels in later decades.

The first Four Seasons opened in Toronto in 1961. It was a motel. Because the location of the second Four Seasons (actually called “Inn on the Park”) was less than ideal– the Toronto section of North York– it had to offer a few unusual features and amenities, such as smoking and nonsmoking floors, a restaurant and a fitness center, in March 1963. The property manager got a famous sports trainer to run the fitness center. In 1966, the trainer was accused of pushing performance-enhancing drugs. “He later died of lung cancer, from smoking.”

In the late 1960’s, London already had five five-star hotels. But Sharp wanted to build another one anyway. He and his business partners “…signed an 84-year lease at 210,000 Pounds Sterling a year, to be renegotiated every 21 years. He insisted on having air conditioning, unlike the competition. The hotel, opened in January 1970, ended up costing 700,000 Pounds. The lease was modified to allow a renegotiation every fourteen years.

Over the course of four years prior to the building of the hotel, the author’s London contact engaged him in social interaction to make sure he was trustworthy. The foundation of business is trustworthy relationships. The author said of certain of his major investors and his brother-in-law, “There was complete trust. Once we shook hands on a deal, there was no need for lawyers and signed documents.”

The author established an investing policy due to skyrocketing inflation in the mid 1970’s: putting a ceiling on his share of ownership at a small percentage of equity. No more than $3-5 million per property. This was based on a simple calculation of the maximum hotel fees he would collect over the first five years; Four Seasons became a property manager, rather than a real estate developer.

The Four Seasons hotels offer high-end luxury, targeting exclusively wealthy Americans and business executives. As its culture has evolved, it has identified a set of values to which its employees adhere and by which it does business: respect, fairness, honesty and trust. Sharp sought to make it a companywide habit.

Sharp knew that employees whose jobs include direct guest interaction are the ones who directly generate most of the hotel’s revenue, and the experienced ones are “… storehouses of customer knowledge, role models for new hires and advisers for system improvement…”

The author claimed that hotels other than Four Seasons face the major competitive challenge of easily accessible reservations data due to technological advances. The Web “…put every week’s best hotel deal at every traveler’s fingertips, raising the specter of unusually lethal periodic price wars… We didn’t compete on price… we were the one hotel company that could take full advantage of the new [economy] without any problems.” Right.

The last quarter of the book was a brag-fest. Nevertheless, read the book to learn of Sharp’s unpleasant episodes with regard to: Sheraton in Vancouver, attempts to open hotels in Italy, India and Venezuela; political unrest in Indonesia, ownership of The Pierre Hotel, and much more.

The Deserter’s Tale

The Book of the Week is “The Deserter’s Tale” by Joshua Key and Lawrence Hill, published in 2007. This is the intense story of Joshua Key, who was assigned to an outfit of the U.S. Army that he claims committed war crimes in Iraq.

Finding himself in a financially desperate situation with a growing family, Key decided to join the army. A promise was made to him that he would stay stateside. Instead, after training, he was sent to Iraq early on in the Second Gulf War. When posted in Ramadi, his unit was ordered to raid homes of civilians to search for contraband, weapons and signs of terrorists or terrorist activity, but never found any. He writes that all Iraqi males five feet or taller, regardless of age, were detained by his fellow soldiers. He was never told by his commanding officer where they were taken or what happened to them. The females were terrorized by the unnecessarily rough treatment of the males at the hands of the American soldiers. Not only did the soldiers use scare tactics, but they arbitrarily looted and then trashed the civilians’ residences.

Key says he participated in the attacks, but did the minimal damage he could, while still obeying orders. He writes, “My own moral judgement was disintegrating under the pressure of being a soldier, feeling vulnerable, and having no clear enemy to kill in Iraq. We were encouraged to beat up on the enemy… Because we were fearful, sleep-deprived, and jacked up on caffeine, adrenaline, and testosterone, and because our officers constantly reminded us that all Iraqis were our enemies, civilians included, it was tempting to steal, no big deal to punch, and easy to kill… I witnessed numerous incidents of needless brutality and murders of civilians.”

Read the book to learn what transpired when the situation became intolerable for Key.

Don’t Try This At Home

The Book of the Week is “Don’t Try This At Home” edited by Kimberly Witherspoon and Andrew Friedman, published in 2005.  This is a compilation of anecdotes from chefs who encountered some difficult situations during their careers. Some told of “making lemons from lemonade” and others gave a general overview of their experiences.

Four chefs whose stories were particularly intriguing, include Daniel Boulud, David Burke, Marcus Samuelsson and Geoffrey Zakarian.

Boulud recounted an episode in which, as culinary chairman of a fundraising event, he and his staff and extra hired help were required to make 1,200 servings of pea soup.  The “400 pounds of a variety of five peas” were to be stored in “25-gallon stainless steel containers set in ice water.”  Certain people failed to stir the soup hourly overnight, as they should have done, so it fermented.  The next morning, “All twelve hundred servings’ worth, was sour, useless garbage.”  The guests would be arriving that evening and were expecting high-end pea soup.

Burke is another chef who also saw a serious problem for which he had to come up with a solution quickly. He was supposed to cater a man’s fiftieth birthday party at which there would be a surprise dessert, envisioned by the wife.  She wanted a greatly enlarged, custom-made French dessert (“floating islands”) that would serve 200 guests. However, all of the meringues to be used in the dish collapsed, producing a very unprofessional look.  It could not be presented at the end of the meal.  What to do?

It was a language barrier that caused the Swedish-speaking Samuelsson excessive grief while he was working at a restaurant in Switzerland.  This was on New Years’ Eve, no less– one of the biggest nights of the year for business. He was asked to make terrine, which required proper setting of gelatine.  He had never used powdered gelatine before, could not understand the German, French and Italian instructions on the package, and did not ask anyone for help. The resulting concoction smelled bad, and resembled bathtub mold. Was it too late to salvage the situation? Samuelsson’s anecdote was the only one in the whole book that exhibited admission of error and true introspection. Kudos to him.

Zakarian tells of how he became a foodie. When he fell in love with France on a college assignment, he scrapped his academic plans to enjoy the fine food there instead.  Even so, as a starving student, he led a frugal existence, until two strokes of great good luck allowed him to partake of more luxury than otherwise.