For those who pay attention to such things, there have been some odd goings on in business literature. According to the authors, what has worked in the past will no longer work in the future. It may not even be working in the present. Business, of course, is still business. It's still about the bottom line, but how to boost that bottom line has changed markedly.
One bluntly titled example of this change was recently put out by Sir Richard Branson in his new book "Screw Business As Usual" (Portfolio Books, Dec. 2011). You can't get any more direct than that. Branson, of course, turned selling records out of a church crypt into a billion-dollar (or pound) business that eventually expanded into some 200 companies in more than 30 countries. Although often seen as wildly eccentric, there's no denying his business acumen.
In his new book, he calls for more social responsibility on the part of businesses. This is not touchy-feel or cynical publicity, but a way to integrate social and political policies into businesses in profitable ways. The publisher is pushing the book as an antidote to the bullying bluster of Donald Trump.
The other writing news of 2011 was Ray Dalio. If the name isn't familiar, it's because Dalio belongs to that semi-secretive world of hedge funds. He heads up Bridgewater Associates LP, a hedge fund that controls more than a $100 billion. In that rarefied world, he's regarded as a superstar. However, the secret of his success remains, well, a secret.
Then, in 2011 something odd began to happen. Bits and pieces of an internal document, Dalio's "principles," began circulating among Wall Street types. The Connecticut-based Bridgewater, often viewed as more mysterious (and successful) than other hedge funds, became the subject of gossip. Some even called it a cult. Just what was going on in Westport that was so profitable? What is the secret formula? Finally Dalio made the unprecedented move of posting the entire document for free download on his company's website. Anyone could download the secret of his multibillion dollar success. Then he appeared on a number of talk shows for interviews.
The secret could not have been more shocking to traditional Wall Streeters than if the Bridgewater folks were conducting human sacrifices and dancing naked around bonfires in Westport, CT's woods. Dalio describes his approach as "an extreme meritocracy of ideas," regardless of where they originate among the firm's more than 1,000 employees. In practice, the business philosophy calls for employees to subdue their egos. Ideas can be proposed by anyone and challenged by anyone regardless of where they reside in the company hierarchy. If this sounds comically commonsensical, think back to some of the bosses you've known and how they would react to challenges.
In the bulk vending and coin-op businesses, there are important lessons to be learned in these examples. When very credible and successful people like Branson and Dalio are in the vanguard of change, you can be sure they're not in it for their health. They have adapted to rapidly evolving business environments. If the past few years have taught us anything, it is that business is not about to return to some imagined ideal of "normal" any time soon. The business that many vending operators entered a decade ago is not the same one they will likely retire from in another decade.