Book Review: Small Giants by Bo Burlingham

By Chris Wendel

Small Giants, Companies That Chose to Be Great Instead of Big

By Bo Burlingham

 256 pages, Hardcover $13.69, e-read version $6.69

It’s a difficult juggling act for companies to be financially successful, keeping their employees happy – all while fulfilling customer and the public’s expectations. Small Giants takes a unique approach in taking the deep dive into each part of this equation. Several years after being released, it still remains at the top of my list of recommended management books.

Bo Burlingham, author of Small Giants, started a quest ten years ago to find companies that resisted the temptation to grow and use profit as their primary measure of their success. Instead these companies focused (on purpose or by accident) on core values concerning their employees, communities and customers.

The 14 companies that Burlingham profiles demonstrate a dedication to what is termed early on as “mojo,” or the sustained success that customers, competitors and outside observers are drawn to (while creating plenty of profits to go around). The intriguing part of Small Giants are the divergent paths these businesses take to grow and dominant while remaining true to themselves.

Case in point: Anchor Brewing saw its sales climb in the 1980s when microbrew beers began to grow in popularity on the West Coast. With a small manageable location, the company made the difficult choice to turn down a large account with a large Reno, Nevada casino. Declining the huge order was a defining moment for the company’s owner Fritz Maytag, and eventually served as a catalyst for Anchor Brewing to pursue its long-term strategic plan of making great beer.

Studies of the other profiled businesses show this resistance to selling out and growing just to get to the proverbial “next level.” Instead, they remain dedicated to their communities and the employee-driven cultures that created their success in the first place. This includes Cliff Bar and Co. owner Gary Erickson walking away at the eleventh hour from signing papers to sell his business to a large food conglomerate.

It also includes musical performer Ani DiFranco, who shunned major recording labels to form her own recording company (Righteous Babe Records) in her hometown of Buffalo, using local venders and creating 100 local jobs.

Rather than building a national chain of cookie cutter Zingerman’s Delicatessens, its founders grew a series of connected businesses in Ann Arbor including a bakery, creamery, catering business and customer service training.

As these 14 businesses fly through their start-up phase and dramatically grow, there is usually a significant moment of truth for each. These company profile moments are the most captivating portions of the book. In the end, most of the 14 companies learn to earnestly listen to customers and employees, share finances openly within the company, develop better internally-derived management systems, and appreciate the importance of their companies in the towns and cities they live in.

It’s interesting to see how companies in Traverse City and other parts of Michigan define success even when reaching that plateau of high sales and profits. One can look to Grand Rapids, Fremont and Battle Creek to see longstanding hometown companies that became immensely successful, yet remained locally engaged – all while giving back with their own nonprofits and foundations.

The perspective Small Giants provides is an interesting contrast to the corporate behavior that almost led us to ruin since the book was written in 2005. There is much to be said about growing a business in a way that cares for the people and the community it serves. In the end Small Giants proves that profits and well-intentioned growth are not mutually exclusive.

There are plenty of remarkable stories in Small Giants of successful companies that will inspire anyone involved in small business, from the person writing that initial business plan to the experienced business owner. After reviewing dozens of business-related books over the past few years, Small Giants is a classic that remains at the top of my list.

Chris Wendel is with Northern Initiative in Traverse City. Based in Marquette, Mich., Northern Initiatives provides entrepreneurs with access to capital, information and new markets.