Playing hardball with audacity: AICD Review

Wednesday, 01 December 2004


    "Strategy" is a badly over-used word in business. Every second half-baked plan is dressed up as "strategy" these days.

    "Strategy" is a badly over-used word in business. Every second half-baked plan is dressed up as "strategy" these days. At last, here is a book that puts the warfare back into strategy. Hardball is about playing to win. It's about taking hold of your competitive advantage and driving it home as hard as you can. It's about capturing the "profit sanctuaries" of your competitors, as the Japanese car makers did when they launched a range of utes on steroids right into the heartland territory of the sacred Dodge Ram and Ford F150. It's about driving your competitors out of business, or into a position where the prices that keep them barely alive will make you lots of money.

    There is a rich store of anecdotes here. I enjoyed one about Bob Irwin, who worked at the old Chrysler plant in Adelaide at the time it was sold to Mitsubishi. He watched as they converted a flabby plant to lean manufacturing, Japanese style. Then he went home to the USA and applied the learning to the Batesville Casket Company, making it a market leader in vehicles for the deceased.

    When I was a consultant on business strategy, my partner George Pappas gave us our company song, with the refrain "Cut price, add capacity. Show them your audacity". There is tons of this sort of strategy in Hardball, but much more than just clichs. Take the case of the Wausau Paper Company, which had an old plant and high costs. Richard Radt, the president, made it very profitable with a strategy of small orders, fast order turnaround and high prices. He did it so well and took it so far that the competitors had to retreat to volume commodity business and stay there.

    Is this a book for directors? Yes, it is. It can remind directors to ask tough questions. Do we know the true basis of our competitive advantage? Are we exploiting it to the fullest? Are we awake to indirect attacks or raids on our profit sanctuaries? If we have stranded assets (ones left on the sand by the tide), are we dealing with them? Do we have a China play? How are we coping with the retail giant that says "It is futile to resist: you will be assimilated"? Most critical of all: are we really playing softball?

    The authors are associated with the Boston Consulting Group, where George Stalk is a senior vice president (and so once a partner of the reviewer). They write with vigour and zest. There is not a silly diagram with boxes and arrows in the whole book. At 165 pages, this is a short book but a meaty one, and definitely not one of those business books that began life as an article and should have stayed that way.

    Harvard Business School Press. ISBN 159 139 167 9 RRP $43.95.Member's price $37.35. Ring Publications Services on 8248 6600 to place your order


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