published on Monday, July 4, 2005 in The Miami Herald
Acting like a small company is a big deal.
that hold on to their core values and practices are among the most
successful, according to research by author Jason Jennings.
BY RICHARD PACHTER
Big, Act Small: How America's Best Performing Companies Keep the
Start-up Spirit Alive. Jason Jennings. Portfolio. 220 pages
It's easy to talk the talk, but walking the walk is another matter
entirely. We've seen too many companies that make all the right
noises about the best practices, transparent management, raising
stakeholder value, fanatical customer service, scrupulous honesty
and other admirable values that are quickly abandoned amid the daily
ebb and flow of business.
Even more difficult is to ''stay hungry.'' There are avaricious,
predatory firms out there, but remarkably few that seem able to
hold on to their original motivating principles and practices. And
those among them that grow and are consistently profitable remain
There are ample studies of well-known companies -- or flavors of
the month -- but valuable lessons also come from analyzing firms
that are successful over the long haul.
Writer Jason Jennings and his team of researchers identified nine
companies that manifest steady profitability and growth. Most are
regional operations that may be relatively unfamiliar, but here's
the list: Cabela's, a sporting goods marketer; Dot Foods, a food
service distributor; Koch Industries, a diversified (multi-industry)
company; Medline Industries, a medical supplies outfit; O'Reilly
Automotive, a retail and wholesale auto parts chain; PETCO, a retailer
of pet supplies; SAS Institute, a software company; Sonic Drive-In,
a fast-food chain; and Strayer Education, a multi-campus and online
academic institution for adults.
Each chapter focuses on one firm and shows how they deal with 10
''building blocks,'' which is what Jennings calls the fundamental
practices common to each profiled company: be down to earth, keep
your hands dirty, make short-term goals and long-term horizons,
let go, have everyone think and act like an owner, invent new businesses,
create win-win solutions, choose your competition, build communities
and develop future leaders.
There are also subsets of each building block that serve to explain
and expand upon the principles.
Jennings does a good job of detailing each organization's history
without throwing in an excessive amount of minutiae. Some of the
stories, however, seem a little too good to be true, with executives
that are, perhaps, somewhat idealized, and situations that seem
less morally ambiguous than those in real life.
But for illustrative, if not documentary, purposes I'm willing to
suspend any minor disbelief. Besides, archetypes have been invoked
throughout history to convey practical lessons and values.
I listened to the abridged audio
version of this text and also read the book. Author Jennings
reads his material well. He has a good voice, like a morning DJ
on a Midwestern radio station, and lots of presence.
His inflections, however, were a bit, well, idiosyncratic. For example,
''grown'' grows from a one- to a two-syllable word, pronounced ''grow-in.''
Auto becomes ''otto,'' raw is ''rah'' and so forth. Takes a little
getting used to, but the added flavor and authenticity provides
something extra, perhaps like getting a baker's dozen bagels (or
Regardless, this is a good and valuable work. There are doubtless
many firms that will benefit from studying these examples of companies
that evolved and grew -- by staying the same.
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