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What to read about boardroom battles

Four books and a podcast about contests for corporate control

Brian Cox in the HBO series, Succession.
image: Alamy

YOU’VE FINISHED “Succession”. Where to get another fix of power grabs and power lunches? Worry not: here are four books and one podcast to satisfy your craving. They recount real-life succession battles and hostile takeovers. Their portrayal of business as a messy sport is one that Logan Roy would have recognised.? “Life is not knights on horseback,” the patriarch of “Succession” told his son. “It’s a number on a piece of paper. It’s a fight for a knife in the mud.”

Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco. By Bryan Burrough and John Helyar. Harper Business; 624 pages; $24.99. Cornerstone; ?10.99

“Well, boys, we’re off to the races! Whaddya think?” So crowed Ross Johnson, the freewheeling boss of RJR Nabisco, a now-defunct cigarettes-and-snacks conglomerate, on the eve of what was to be, in 1988, the largest-ever leveraged buy-out. Johnson was dismayed by the company’s languishing share price; he felt that investors unfairly penalised it for its tobacco business. So, with Wall Street’s help, he plotted to have the company taken private, a manoeuvre from which he stood to make a killing. When KKR, a top private-equity shop, was left out of the deal, a battle of PE barons ensued. “Why didn’t [Johnson] come to us?” asked Henry Kravis, KKR’s aggrieved boss. “I gave him the idea.” Mr Kravis made a counter-bid, and won, causing Johnson’s downfall. “Barbarians at the Gate” is a pacey story of greed and short-termism in the go-go 1980s.

Unscripted: The Epic Battle for a Media Empire and the Redstone Family Legacy. By James Stewart and Rachel Abrams. Penguin Press; 416 pages; $32. Cornerstone Press; ?25

“Unscripted” is fascinating because many of its protagonists are so awful. Foremost among them is the irascible and cruel Sumner Redstone. He transformed his family’s chain of drive-in movie theatres into one of the world’s largest collections of entertainment assets, with controlling stakes in CBS and Viacom. His forced retirement in 2016 at the age of 93, after a court-ordered cognitive test, triggered an epic succession battle. His daughter, Shari, sought to merge CBS and Viacom. Rivalling her for control was Leslie Moonves, CBS’s boss, who ultimately resigned after he was accused of sexual harassment, an allegation that he denies. Ms Redstone became chairwoman of Paramount Global, which combined CBS and Viacom—a Hollywood ending for one of the book’s few likeable characters. The book ends with Sumner’s funeral in 2020, with Shari singing “My Way”. A family saga and boardroom melodrama combined, “Unscripted” is a riveting tale of shouting matches, restraining orders, custody battles, non-disclosure agreements and psychics. Read our full review.

Collision Course: Carlos Ghosn and the Culture Wars That Upended an Auto Empire. By Hans Greimel and William Sposato. Harvard Business Press; 400 pages; $30 and ?22

This is a story of one man’s downfall and the collision of corporate cultures and national identities that contributed to it. Its focus is Carlos Ghosn, a Brazilian-born carmaking executive who engineered an alliance of Nissan of Japan and France’s Renault. He later added Mitsubishi, another Japanese carmaker. When Renault bailed out Nissan in the late 1990s it sent Mr Ghosn—then a senior manager—to Japan to execute the turnaround. “No sacred cows, no taboos, no constraints”, declared “Le Cost-Killer”. Success at Nissan won him the top job at Renault. Leading both firms simultaneously, he had a mandate to knit them together ever more tightly. But tensions were growing: in time Nissan eclipsed Renault in sales, yet its stake in Renault was much smaller than Renault’s in Nissan. Closer integration seemed, to some at Nissan, like a covert takeover. Then, in 2018, came Mr Ghosn’s shocking arrest in Tokyo, for allegedly under-reporting his salary and misusing company assets (charges that he denies). Mr Ghosn escaped in dramatic fashion, and has been holed up in Lebanon ever since.

Dear Chairman: Boardroom Battles and the Rise of Shareholder Activism. By Jeff Gramm. Harper Business; 320 pages; $35. HarperCollins; ?20

In eight case studies “Dear Chairman” recounts how sleepy shareholders woke up and began challenging company boards and bosses over the course of the 20th century. Each chapter profiles an investor unafraid to confront incompetent management. Some—like Carl Icahn, a fearsome corporate raider—have been criticised for dismantling companies to make quick profits. Others drew notice for intemperate attacks on corporate bosses. Daniel Loeb, a hedge-fund manager, once suggested a “town hanging” of an energy executive. But the activism of such malcontent investors has improved capitalism, argues Jeff Gramm, by making staid institutional shareholders more assertive and firms more responsive. As the head of a pension fund admitted in the 1980s, shareholders who remain quiescent “will continue to be shorn like sheep”. Now no public company is too big to avoid a fight; the only safe bosses are those who control the majority of shareholder votes in their companies.

Bitter Blood: Murdoch v Murdoch. A podcast from Audible

A supposedly doting father, Rupert Murdoch has also viewed his children in strikingly Darwinian terms. How better to appraise their potential to succeed him than to have them fight to prove their fitness? This podcast series narrates how Lachlan, the firstborn son, prevailed over his siblings to take charge of the family’s media empire. He became boss of Fox Corporation (the parent company of Fox News) and co-chairman of News Corp, which owns newspapers such as the Wall Street Journal and the Times of London. These have a combined market capitalisation of nearly $27bn. Things could change after Murdoch senior dies. His four eldest children have equal vote shares in a trust that has a controlling stake in both firms. Not all of them speak to each other, let alone agree. James, the youngest of the four, opposes Fox News’s aggressive populism, which puts him in conflict with Lachlan. Depending on how it plays out, a succession battle within the Murdoch family could affect politics in America and beyond.

Also try

Read our take on the coming battle over Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. We wrote about the post-Ghosn prospects for the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi alliance. Here we explain why companies’ addiction to takeovers is unwise. Our Back Story columnist bids farewell to Logan Roy.?

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