THE AMERICAN EAGLE The Ascent of Bob Crandall and American Airlines. By Dan Reed. Illustrated. 302 pp. New York: A Thomas Dunne Book/St. Martin's Press. $23.95.
KING ICAHN The Biography of a Renegade Capitalist. By Mark Stevens. Research by Carol Bloom Stevens. 326 pp. New York: Dutton. $23.
DANGEROUS DREAMERS The Financial Innovators From Charles Merrill to Michael Milken. By Robert Sobel. 260 pp. New York: John Wiley & Sons. $27.95.
CONTROL YOUR DESTINY OR SOMEONE ELSE WILL How Jack Welch Is Making General Electric the World's Most Competitive Corporation. By Noel M. Tichy and Stratford Sherman. 384 pp. New York: Currency/Doubleday. $24.
FOR all the ink spilled chronicling the corporate restructurings, takeovers, junk bonds, savings-and-loan woes and the other excesses that landed business stories on the nation's front pages during the past decade, the general reader knows far too little about the way business really works or about the (mostly) men who hold so much sway over the American economy. Powerful executives seem to inhabit a different world. They live in chic enclaves, travel in corporate jets, hobnob mainly with peers and spend their days and nights making big decisions.
Four new books examine four symbols of the 1980's. Two deal with esteemed corporate chieftains -- Robert L. Crandall, the head of American Airlines, and John F. Welch Jr., chairman and chief executive of the General Electric Company. And two depict men regarded as rogues -- Michael R. Milken, junk bond king of the defunct investment banking firm Drexel Burnham Lambert, and Carl C. Icahn, a raider who made a killing attacking the likes of Chesebrough Pond's, Phillips Petroleum, Texaco, USX and T.W.A.
Although the four share some traits -- smarts, drive, iconoclasm -- they differ greatly in style and substance, as does the quality of the portraits. Mr. Welch comes off best: as "Control Your Destiny or Someone Else Will" tells it, he's a complicated character who learns and grows as he tries to transform a huge bureaucratic company into a world-class competitor. In "Dangerous Dreamers," Mr. Milken seems to be a charming visionary whose financial insights did more good than harm. He is neither the villain you'd expect, considering his imprisonment for securities crimes, nor (as some have said) the most important financier of the 20th century. As for "King Icahn," its protagonist comes across as the least likable of the four -- a wily, difficult, rude man, single-minded in his pursuit of the buck. And in "The American Eagle," Mr. Crandall is quick, earthy and absolutely dedicated to propelling American to the top of the airline heap.
Of the four portraits, "The American Eagle," by Dan Reed, a reporter who covers the airline industry for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is the weakest. Using an aw-shucks style, Mr. Reed has written a formulaic book with too many digressions that take the reader nowhere. His one-sided, hagiographic account rarely goes beyond corporate sources. As Mr. Reed recounts how Mr. Crandall and his management team invented frequent-flyer programs, the hub-and-spoke route system, two-tier wages and various discount fare schemes and financing mechanisms, he provides far too little information on what American's rivals are doing and why the entire airline industry flew into turbulence. Mr. Crandall, a chain-smoking jogger whose salty outspokenness has plunged him into trouble more than once, deserves better. For all his faults, Mr. Crandall is considered in the business world to be a thoughtful industry leader, always trying something to gain a competitive edge. There must be stories that would make that Bob Crandall come alive.
On that score, Mark Stevens, author of "The Big Eight" and other books on business and finance, is far more successful. His "King Icahn" is chockablock with anecdotes that take his subject from humble beginnings in Queens, the son of a would-be opera singer who thought there was "something wrong about great wealth," to multimillionaire status, with homes on Park Avenue, in the Hamptons and in baronial Bedford, N.Y.
To please his mother, Mr. Icahn started out in medical school. But as Mr. Stevens relates Mr. Icahn's escapades since his first raids from 1978 through today, readers can't help being grateful that early on he recognized his unsuitability for the healing profession. Mr. Icahn is "a bull, snorting and pacing," in the description of a longtime assistant, "always looking for a way to get through that fence to strike a deal." Mr. Stevens shows how the man chooses his corporate targets, how he descends on management, how he'll do anything legal to get more. Consider his negotiating tactics. On the appointed day, we're told, Mr. Icahn sleeps late, catches a shower and a nap late in the day, then arrives hours after an evening session was scheduled to start -- all to outwit tired opponents as he drags out talks into the next morning. Yet for all his wealth, Mr. Icahn remains cheap -- refusing, according to a neighbor's account, to pay an extra $300 for power windows in his wife's Jeep.
Mr. Stevens has written a well-researched history of one man and his times. There's just one big problem. Who wants to know this much about Carl Icahn? Perhaps that's why Mr. Stevens strains to declare him the most important, the brightest, the very best 80's raider. Mr. Icahn's troubles with T.W.A., which he tried and failed to manage, say otherwise.
With "Dangerous Dreamers," Robert Sobel, a professor of business history at Hofstra University and the author of many books on business, treads richer territory. Although the book is billed as a history of financial innovators, the focus is on Mr. Milken, and others are brought in to put him in perspective. Walking readers down both the sunny and the shady sides of Wall Street, Mr. Sobel explains how changes in stock ownership patterns, tax laws, Federal regulation and deregulation, 1960's-style conglomeration, interest rate fluctuations, the death of traditional company-banker relationships and a host of other trends led to the financial shenanigans of the 80's.
Mr. Milken gets off lightly. As Mr. Sobel recites his background, his maniacal work habits, his intellectual breakthroughs, he seems fond of the junk bond maven. He notes, too, that Mr. Milken warned that companies were taking on too much debt as early as 1986.
In a few places, Mr. Sobel provides facts that should dispel popular misconceptions -- that there's something innately evil about junk bonds, for example, or that hostile lev eraged buyouts were the rule of the 80's. "Only 1 percent of all LBO's began and ended in an unfriendly fashion," he writes. And even at the height of the hostile takeover movement, only about 15 percent of junk bonds were issued to finance them.
Mr. Sobel has written an evenhanded recap of an era. But that's its weakness: "Dangerous Dreamers" is rather a bland synthesis of other people's reporting and research. Readers get context, not revelation.
NOEL M. TICHY, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Business and a consultant to General Electric since 1982, and Stratford Sherman, a reporter and member of Fortune magazine's board of editors who has written often about G.E., aspire to an entirely different goal. "Control Your Destiny or Someone Else Will" is a how-to book, designed to explain John Welch's management techniques and to inspire other big, stodgy American corporate leaders to follow his lead. Although the authors give readers the requisite biographical information, they are really more interested in telling stories that illustrate Mr. Welch's management ideas. He demands, for example, that each of G.E.'s businesses be No. 1 or No. 2 in market share. He talks about the need to create a "bounda ryless organization" that encourages every employee to be flexible, speedy and responsible -- and to get the job done without regard to antiquated organizational rules.
Still, Mr. Welch has his own rules, his own "unusual management ideas," and his maxims, such as a call for managers to be "hardheaded but soft-hearted." Add them all up and readers get a motivational text that teaches more about well-run organizations of the future than about Mr. Welch. Anyone familiar with management books knows much of this turf, as even Mr. Tichy, who is responsible for the book's research, admits.
That, in fact, is the disappointment in all four books. They don't tell much that readers of the business pages don't already know and do tell much that they don't want to. And they won't hold the attention of the general reader who might like -- and benefit from -- a guided tour of the business world.
Judith H. Dobrzynski is a senior editor at Business Week magazine.