Corporate biographies have form for signalling oncoming doom.
‘Fountains and flagpoles are recognised totems of corporate vanity, but when companies come out with histories of themselves, alarm bells ring,’ wrote The Daily Telegraph a few years back on the publication of a new biography of Barclays.
The bank had already fallen foul of this rule of thumb. In 1996, when it published a corporate history of its investment bank entitled BZW: The First Ten Years, its chairman Sir Peter Middleton wrote in the preface: ‘It may seem presumptuous to produce an account of the first ten years of a business.’
He was right, for the book was published only just in time. BZW did not live to see its 12th birthday. However, this experience has not put off other companies from seeking to augment their futures by documenting their past.
Organisations from engineering concerns Rolls-Royce, GKN and Smiths Group to The Royal Mail, British Airways and even The Audit Commission have been the subject of corporate histories or biographies. Bacardi’s Martini brand even brought out a lavish all-colour posterbook-style biography to celebrate its 150th anniversary, with a page devoted to every year of its history under the title: Luck is an Attitude.
Standard Chartered Group is set to publish a corporate history later this year and last October, rat-catching to laundry services group Rentokil Initial hired the House of Commons to launch The Pest Detectives, a ‘definitive history of the company’.
Rentokil Initial's director of corporate communications Malcolm Padley stresses that the tome is part of a well thought-out programme, rather than an exercise in corporate vanity. The company celebrated its 90th anniversary last year and Padley says it decided two years before publication that a book would support the acquisitions and innovations it was planning.
‘We saw it as an opportunity to add a theme of the heritage of the company,’ he explains, ‘but we wanted it to be a really interesting read, not a dry company history. ‘It had to be about our people and their frontline stories and innovations.
‘From a brand point of view, it’s been a very strong exercise and there was also a very powerful internal engagement piece. We ran competitions internally to win copies of the book; we offered discounts on it to our 30,000 employees and when we bring in a new colleague now, we give them one.’
Rentokil spent 18 months on the book, opening its archives to business journalist and author Rob Gray and inviting company pensioners to submit memories.
That prompted more than 100 letters full of stories about working at the company, plus photographs and opportunities for interviews. Ten thousand copies were printed by publisher Harriman House and Rentokil put some of the book’s materials onto its digital channels, cross-promoted the publication with a ‘Splat the Rat’ mobile game and provided a ‘pestaurant’ menu of mealworms and water beetles for guests to taste at the launch.
That led to a slot on Radio Four’s Today programme while the choice of launch venue allowed the company to show MPs, shareholders, analysts and customers the historic Westminster Hall timber roof where an infestation of black watch beetle in 1925 led to the company’s first contract.
Rob Gray, author of Pest Detectives, adds: ‘The book is an opportunity to celebrate what the organisation is famous for and to rediscover some fascinating stories from the past.
‘Corporate histories provide a fantastic focal point for communications activity. It’s definitely not all about looking back. In an age where everyone in communications is obsessed with content marketing, I’m surprised more organisations aren’t investing time and resource in corporate histories.
‘But of course it isn’t always that easy. Many brands talk of their heritage, wrapping themselves in claims of authenticity, yet when you take a closer look they don’t really have a notable point of difference or compelling tale to tell.’
Even when they do, there’s a question mark against the operational longevity of what is written, even though the words are now recorded for posterity. For example, GKN commissioned Andrew Lorenz, the senior managing director at FTI Consulting and former Sunday Times business editor, to write GKN: The Making of a Business which was published in 2009.
However, Melissa Morgan, GKN communications assistant, says: ‘No-one here now was there when the decision was taken [to publish]. The biography was timed to coincide with the 250th anniversary since the founding of the first GKN company and was part of those celebrations and I am sure that was the only consideration at the time. We still give the book to people who want to find out more about GKN and many tell us they find it a useful primer for understanding GKN.’
Aero-engine maker Rolls-Royce, meanwhile, has published three volumes of The Magic of a Name: The Rolls-Royce Story by Peter Pugh. However, corporate affairs director Peter Morgan says: ‘We have not published this for at least ten years and it is out of print so we don’t use it for marketing any more. I do use it as a source for speeches and as a reference of our company history.’
Lorenz, who has written four other business books, including a corporate biography for German shipbuilder Lurssen and that aforementioned BZW history, sees the genre as performing a useful function for brands to be valued and understood, though the reasons that they are commissioned can vary wildly.
Referring to GKN’s anniversary, he states: ‘My GKN book was written with a particular purpose. Most companies don’t have something quite as strong as that to pin a biography on.
‘Some just decide that they have been around for quite a long while and should have a corporate biography written. But they’re also really for a company’s family in the widest sense. In these days of emphasis on internal communications, employee engagement and building a corporate culture right through a global company, you need things all the time to unite your people. I think corporate histories can be very valuable. They give people a lot to identify with.’
At Smiths Group, head of group media Colin McSeveny, says that the commissioning of the company’s biography A Long Time in Making: The History of Smiths to mark the company’s centenary was championed by the group’s former chairman Sir Donald Brydon.
‘It wasn’t something that we as a corporate communications team initiated or instigated,’ he says. ‘It was the chairman and previous chief executive Philip Bowman who were really behind it.’ The choice of writer is clearly a major decision.
Rentokil Initial already knew and liked Gray and were comfortable with the tone of his previous book about branding blunders. ‘You’ve got to choose your writer carefully and make sure you get the tone of voice right,’ says Padley. ‘These things have got to be readable.’
Smiths Group, which at one time was world famous for making car instrumentation including clocks, hired James Nye, a retired City executive who has an interest in clock-making.
‘Clocks are an abiding passion for him,’ says McSeveny. ‘He was suggested by the chairman and emerged as a very suitable choice.’
For GKN, meanwhile, Lorenz, who knew the company inside out, was an obvious decision. He says: ‘The book took me about nine months to write but you could say it took me 25 years, because I started covering the company in the early 1980s. I already knew a lot about the history.’
Others turn to well-known corporate biographers, such as Duncan Campbell-Smith, the former head of communications for Pearson and Rolls-Royce and consultant at PR agency Maitland, who has written company histories for British Airways, the Audit Commission and the Royal Mail as well as the forthcoming Standard Chartered publication.
Judi Bevan, a veteran Fleet Street business writer for newspapers including The Sunday Telegraph and The Sunday Times, independently authored The Rise & Fall of Marks and Spencer and Trolley Wars – The Battle of the Supermarkets. She has also done corporate writing, ghosting a biography of Reed Executive employment agency founder Sir Alec Reed and penning a history of Oxford University’s Said Business School and says the two genres are very different.
‘With a commissioned book, people are very happy to talk to you and make everybody available but there can be huge issues at the end,’ she says. ‘There’s a committee, everyone wants to get involved and it becomes attenuated.’
The level of information that already exists about companies that commission corporate histories also differs from company to company. At GKN, Lorenz was aided by the existence of a previous two-volume history that covered events up until the Second World War and by the fact that the company’s former chairman Sir David Lees is a fastidious collector with a personal archive of GKN annual reports going back to 1945.
At Rentokil, in contrast, much of the information needed to be gathered. ‘You need to be really organised,’ says Padley. ‘Give yourself plenty of time to do it. The best stories come from people who have worked in the business. Getting their stories is how you bring a company to life but you need time to speak to as many people as possible.’
Bevan warns that companies have to be prepared to make data and people available to the author. ‘If they want it to be interesting, they have to open up their files and their personnel,’ she says.
After the book is written, Padley also recommends that companies commissioning corporate biographies make the most of the material gathered and think creatively about the other platforms it could be showcased on.
‘Make sure you use the content well on your blogs and digital channels,’ he urges. ‘I always saw our publication as a content-generating exercise, rather than a book-writing exercise.’
Few in the publishing industry expect the fashion for corporate biographies to abate, with business books having been the fastest-growing section of the publishing market through the last recession. ‘I think it’s an American trend but companies with interesting histories do actually want it written down,’ says Bevan.
‘Most corporate communications people generally think that doing corporate biographies is a very bad idea and that you are courting the possibility of something going wrong with the company. There’s not necessarily a vainglorious motive. Companies want their history not to die.’
Despite this, she doesn’t believe it is a worthwhile exercise for all companies. ‘I think it’s only really worth doing if you’re an old established company with an interesting history,’ she says. ‘For any company that’s less than 20 years old, I would say ‘don’t do it’ because you’re courting disaster.’
BZW’s experience is set to remain a seminal text in this regard. Is it tempting fate to suggest that it could never happen again?