"The ITT Wars" by Rand Araskog

Brian Gongol

One-paragraph review: Among the things I like best in business are (1) conglomerates and (2) CEOs who can write for themselves. So "The ITT Wars" ought to have released enough endorphins in my brain to leave me tickled for days. Not so. It's well-written, and flows easily as a business history -- Rand Araskog, the author and the former CEO and chairman of ITT deserves credit for that. But the book is a profoundly self-serving perspective on the circumstances surrounding his ascension to the leadership of the once-great ITT conglomerate and its near-downfall in the mid-1980s. The bottom line, if one reads closely enough, is that ITT grew considerably in the time before Araskog took over, and it took on far too much debt to do it. But Araskog turns every opponent into an adversary -- particularly Jay Pritzker, who becomes the subject of almost half the book. Araskog frames Pritzker as a sneaky opportunist who would have destroyed Araskog's precious ITT. History suggests strongly otherwise: Pritzker was undoubtedly an opportunist (inasmuch as any great value-driven investor strikes when an opportunity arises to buy something for a price far less than its true value) -- but Pritzker was a builder, not a cheater. Araskog's portrayal of his role in the era and as the head of one of America's biggest corporations as that of someone from a bygone era -- when government and big business cooperated heavily to preserve the status quo. Pritzker (and his business partner, his brother) famously resented the interference of government in the private sector and preferred to be left alone. A fascinating alternate history would tell us how enormous ITT would be today if Pritzker had won out -- taking over ITT at a time of great vulnerability and (almost certainly) invigorating it with more disciplined management. Instead, ITT broke up in the 1990s and is today only a shadow of its former self.

Verdict: Worth the read, but only in the context (and after careful understanding) of the environment and other circumstances surrounding the story -- Araskog paints a seriously biased picture.