Company Men

Washington Post Book World
Dec 22, 2002

The Man Who Rules Microsoft
By Frederic Alan Maxwell
Morrow. 278 pp. $26.95

Alfred P. Sloan and the Triumph of General Motors
By David Farber
Univ. of Chicago. 292 pp. $27.50

Reviewed by David Futrelle

A year or so ago, a most unusual music video found its way to the Internet. Evidently bootlegged from a Microsoft corporate gathering, the low-tech video opened with a bouncy burst of music from Latin pop diva Gloria Estefan. Suddenly, a great burly linebacker of a man careened onstage, pumping his fists and bellowing while performing a strange, violent and only vaguely rhythmic dance. "I have four words for you," he shouted, gasping for breath. "I . . . LOVE . . . THIS . . . COMPANY . . . YEEEEEEEAAAASSSS!!"

The star of the video, as you may know, was none other than Steve Ballmer, Bill Gates's longtime confidant and the man who took over as CEO of the company when Gates kicked himself upstairs to become chief "software architect" some two years ago. There are many things about this video that strike one as strange, from the choice of music to the realization that Ballmer's four words are in fact five. But the strangest thing, perhaps, is Ballmer's seeming sincerity. He apparently does love Microsoft so much he has to shout it to the heavens.

Some business leaders are driven by love of money or lust for power or even -- though this may be hard to believe in these post- Enron days -- by a desire to better the world. Others, like Ballmer, are simply driven. Two new biographies attempt to get inside the heads of these Businessmen Who Love Their Companies Too Much.

Frederic Alan Maxwell's Bad Boy Ballmer purports to tell the dirty secrets of Microsoft's not-so-tiny dancer. Unfortunately, the book fails utterly in its attempt to capture or comprehend its ostensible subject. Indeed, the book fails in so many ways it's hard to know where to begin.

Like many other biographers, Maxwell was hobbled from the start by an uncooperative subject. Ballmer refused to grant him an interview. What's worse, many of those who did agree to talk with Maxwell refused to go on the record -- with one anonymous source inside Microsoft identified only as Deep Geek. (Granted, it's not hard to understand why Ballmer might balk. Maxwell looks upon Ballmer with unbridled scorn, comparing him, variously, to Attila the Hun, Uncle Fester of the Addams family and "John Belushi on coke" -- though in a moment of charity he does suggest that Ballmer's "deep-set, almost ghoulish eyes appear softer in person" than they do in photos.)

Trouble is, unlike Deep Throat, none of Maxwell's sources, anonymous or otherwise, has any real secrets to reveal. With no insights into or inside information about his book's central character, Maxwell is reduced to quoting vague complaints about Microsoft's ways and rehashing oft-told tales about the company's long and checkered history in clunky prose that would have benefited immensely from Microsoft Word's built-in grammar checker. It's far from clear whether Maxwell has even a rudimentary grasp of many of the subjects upon which he opines. He doesn't seem altogether clear, for example, on the difference between a Web browser and a search engine, using the two terms interchangeably at times. Even the most fervid Microsoft haters will find his diatribes tiresome.

And for all his digging, Maxwell is unable to come up with any real dirt on Ballmer. In 1978, he reports, Ballmer and some colleagues were apparently tossed out of a pizza parlor for making too much noise! An old college roommate drops another bombshell, telling Maxwell that Ballmer once bought sheets that turned out to be too small for his bed -- but he used them anyway! That's about as risque as it gets here. Quickly exhausting his store of Ballmer lore, Maxwell resorts to speculation. Ballmer spent a brief time in Hollywood in the late '70s, reading scripts at NBC and parking celebrity cars. Though there's no evidence he did much more than this, Maxwell notes portentously that "it is within the realms of both possibility and his personality that he auditioned for roles."

What drives this intensely driven man? With no real answer to this central question, Maxwell resorts to vague insights drawn from pop psychology, suggesting that "competition addict" Ballmer may really be driven by an unfulfilled childhood need to be loved. Even by pop-psych standards, that's not much of an answer. Ballmer may come across as a manic buffoon, but he didn't get where he is today on enthusiasm alone. Unfortunately, the book that truly explains the secrets of his success remains to be written.

At first glance, David Farber's Sloan Rules seems to have little in common with Bad Boy Ballmer. Alfred P. Sloan, the man who ran General Motors from 1923 to 1946, was about as Old Economy as they come. Ballmer is a boisterous brute; Sloan was a 130-pound weakling, described by Farber as "bony and narrow-shouldered, a whippet of a man." A 1924 Forbes magazine profile of Sloan described him as "totally without swashbucklerism."

But, like Ballmer, Sloan proves a difficult man to pin down. Describing himself as a "very narrow man," Sloan gave few interviews during his lifetime and left behind no papers or letters to study. His famous "memoir," My Years With General Motors, offers many insights into running a business, but few clues about the man himself. If he had an interior life, there seems to be no easy way to access it.

Farber, a history professor at the University of New Mexico, nonetheless does a good deal with what he's got, demonstrating how the coldly rational Sloan transformed General Motors from a chaotic collection of independent car companies in the early 1920s, when he first took control of it, to an industrial giant poised to dominate the nation's postwar prosperity when he stepped down in 1946.

While recognizing Sloan's organizational genius, Farber is also keenly aware of the ways in which Sloan's self-professed narrowness blinkered his broader social vision. Like Ballmer, Sloan was an intense, driven man almost totally preoccupied with running his businesses and actively hostile to government attempts at regulation. A bitter opponent of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, Sloan really did believe, as his successor Charles Wilson so memorably put it, that "what was good for our country was good for General Motors -- and vice versa." While hardly a virulent bigot like Henry Ford, Sloan "did not find racists and anti-Semites uncomfortable political bedfellows. He did not seem to care if people were maimed or killed by the products he manufactured. He saw nothing unjust about safeguarding executives' bonuses and salaries during the Great Depression, even as tens of thousands of GM hourly workers were laid off."

Unfortunately, what's good for General Motors (or for Microsoft) isn't necessarily good for the rest of us.