BOOK REVIEW / Not Quite the Conquering Heroes: The British Renaissance: How to Survive and Thrive despite Any Recession, by Jeffrey Ferry. Heinemann, Pounds 17.50 View from the Bridge, Edited by Geoff Armstrong. Institute of Personnel Management, Pounds 25

Article excerpt

The fantastic success of In Search of Excellence has stimulated many management writers to try to hit the jackpot too. The British Renaissance is yet another attempt to do so. Will it be any more successful than its predecessors? If promises were the secret of success, the answer would be 'Yes'.

The author tries to tempt the buyer with an attractive title and two subtitles. If the first subtitle is not bait enough, the second promises: 'Learn the secrets of how six British companies are conquering the world.' Like much advertising, the promise distorts the reality.

It is a story of six companies. Curiously, ICL is one of the six, although it is owned by a Japanese company and, with a much smaller stake, by a Canadian one. Those who deplored the loss of Britain's last car manufacturer to a foreign owner may take heart; perhaps we will still count it as a British company.

The other five companies are Oxford Automotive Components, Guinness, TI Group, Virgin and Control Techniques. The leaders of these companies would surely be delighted if they thought they had really conquered the world. They can be proud of their achievements, but they are not that great.

Success, too, can be short- lived. It has often been pointed out that some of the excellent companies lauded in In Search of Excellence later ran into difficulties. Ferry's book is too recent for that embarrassment to have affected his claims.

The British Renaissance is a collection of case stories that trace the history of turnarounds and of successful deals. It will appeal to readers who like chatty accounts of the thoughts and actions of businessmen and prefer stories to analysis.

For instance, we learn that the chairman of Control Techniques, visiting Germany to discuss an acquisition, had 'just enough time for a sausage on a stick and a glass of lager at an outdoor stand in the noonday sun, before it was time for the meeting'.

The lessons in In Search of Excellence were crisply set out and encapsulated in memorable phrases and acronyms such as KISS - Keep it Simple, Stupid. In The British Renaissance the stories are the messages. The only summary of these is in an appendix called 'Renaissance Principles', which contains a disparate collection of quotes from the leading figures in each company. The focus is on people and their achievements rather than on ideas.

Ernest Saunders should get most pleasure from this account of great achievers. He is described as having accomplished the initial and most difficult part of the turnaround in Guinness. Much of the story is about his achievements. …