Out of Business

What if, after thriving for twenty years, the business culture – market savvy, ever-increasing net worth, the art of the transaction, the broad social power of private enterprise, the no-guilt thrill of making large amounts of money – is finally over? Kaput?

I was on the Forbes yacht having this conversation – it was one of those meet-and-greet affairs for advertisers and other media that the magazine hosts on its boat, The Highlander, on summer evenings – just as WorldCom was collapsing and the week before Vivendi gave Messier the boot. If the business culture really was kaput, I was thinking, I would probably not be on this boat again. We could well go into a new era, or back into an old era, in which one could not be self-respecting (that is, a self-respecting liberal-type person) and be on the Forbes yacht. The Forbes yacht would stand for something other than what it stood for now, which was just a promotional thing – it would, possibly, go back to being a resented symbol of wealth, class, and exclusivity. (Although it is hard to imagine just how the accoutrements of wealth could be re-imbued with exclusiveness after this long run of popularization.)

Still, I continue to be fond of Tim Forbes, who has been the Forbes brother most responsible for running the business since the death of his father, Malcolm, in 1990 and since the designated heir, oldest brother Steve, took up running for president (Steve was on the boat in the role of official greeter). Tim is a self-effacing, none-too-hip, always somewhat pained-looking anomaly of a modern media executive (the opposite of, say, Jean-Marie Messier). Tim might be, you suspect, a lot happier having inherited a more anonymous sort of business – for instance, a water utility – but, dutifully, he makes the best of his fate. In fact, this aura of dutifulness, rather than ego gratification, may be one of the reasons that he seems popular among his staff – something unusual for most ego-charged media executives.

We were sitting together at one of the little tables on the yacht, eating the catered dinner and marveling at this whole breathtaking moment of corporate humiliation.

But we were both old enough to appreciate that in all likelihood this was just a periodic blip. Various deserving people would be pilloried and hung out to dry, and there would be a requisite shocked, shocked moment of sanctimony and contrition, and then the markets would get going again. This made sense. “It’s very hard to imagine the end of this,” said Tim. The business culture was just way too ingrained in careers and aspirations and relationships to be undone by what was, relative to the vastness of the American economy, just rounding-error-level corruption. We chuckled about the recent Wall Street Journal story naming this business era as the most corrupt since just before the Great Depression.

And yet that the Journal, of all places, could so easily be caught up in the anti-business fever – partly, of course, trying to distance itself from the current mess – was precisely the point. It really could happen. It really could come apart. And not just the economy. But the central organizing faith of our time – that personal ambition, relentless salesmanship, financial savvy, and, well, greed were the most efficient and even liberal agents of societal advancement and harmony. All of that, almost in the blink of an eye, could go back to being not just uncool but really nasty stuff. Quite possibly, business would return to being the province of only bores and bad guys. Certainly, everywhere, people were rushing for the doors (our M.B.A. president himself is frantically searching for an exit).

But Tim Forbes seemed much more awestruck than depressed by this possibility.

While such a turn of events, an epochal rejection of the business culture, might be for his colleagues at Fortune and Business Week and the Journal a deeply dispiriting notion (not least of all because many of the people at those publications would want to participate in the repudiation), for Tim Forbes there was the possibility that this might be very good news.

“You know, we have always been,” Tim said, with a certain twinkle, “the magazine for true believers.”

If you go back twenty years, it would not at all be a prosaic thing to say “I am a capitalist” or “I believe in unfettered markets” or “Government is too big.” Rather, saying something like this would have defined you as a contrarian or country-club member and, quite likely, a Forbes reader. I remember my own grim fascination with the Forbes motto, “Capitalist Tool” – it seemed so brazen and taunting. It was a line drawn in the sand. In the early eighties, my best friend from college became a bond trader and a Forbes reader (he read Barron’s too), and a breach opened between us – he had gone over to the other side.

To be a Forbes reader was not to have any sort of liberal or youthful or ambivalent impulses whatsoever. Dick Cheney surely read Forbes.

Certainly, there wasn’t any greater cheerleader for the Reagan revolution than Forbes. Deregulation, laissez-faire capitalism, hands-off government, pro forma anti-communism, was Forbes stuff. Caspar Weinberger, Reagan’s secretary of Defense, even became – and in some preserved-in-amber state remains – the ceremonial chairman of the company.

Nor was there any greater voice in the eighties for the sheer joie de vivre of wealth. Forbes’s “400 Richest Americans” issue, which debuted in the early Reagan years, may rank as a seminal work of the business culture. For one thing, it vividly established a new benchmark of riches – there were really, it turned out, a whole lot of people who had achieved mythic levels of dough. Absolute-freedom money. Start-your-own-nation stuff. For another, it was a folksy instruction manual. Anybody, apparently, with a head for business and a modicum of audacity could make a few hundred million bucks.

And then there was Malcolm himself. He was a Reagan complement. While each man represented stiff and conservative and unemoting constituencies, they were both showmen. Hollywood was, ultimately, the point (Malcolm Forbes’s 70th-birthday party in Morocco, with Elizabeth Taylor on his arm, was a pivotal Hollywood-business-culture moment). Both men helped foster the most profound transition of our time: making business sexy, expansive, embracing, even polymorphous.

But this left Forbes, especially after polymorphous Malcolm died, as an awkward cultural fit. That it neither acquired nor was acquired; that it remained in private hands; that the company was known for a yacht instead of a G4 – all of this suddenly made it seem quaint and fragile. The fact that Forbes remained an independent company was not so much an accomplishment as an eccentricity – and probably a costly one (if Fast Company was sold for nearly $400 million, how much would that have made Forbes worth – $2 billion or $3 billion? How could the Forbes family, if they had any head for business at all, not have taken the money and run?).

So much about the magazine seemed out of sync. The brothers, with their odd primogeniture plan (Steve, by order of birth, getting the top title and biggest share of the business). The crotchety old editor, James W. Michaels, on the job for decades, only to finally retire and be replaced by another lifelong veteran of the magazine, William Baldwin (just a somewhat younger version of crotchetiness). And then you had the magazine’s uplifting quotations and mini-sermonettes and ritualistic pomposity. And, of course, there was Steve Forbes’s loopy quest for the presidency and efforts to restore the Republican Party to its place as the party of the pants-pulled-up-too-high set.

Like all business magazines in the nineties, Forbes raked it in. But as business became the big media subject, and one of the great media revenue generators, Forbes also got roughed up by the competition.

Forbes may have remained the magazine of true believers, but Fortune and Business Week (and so many other New Economy comets) became the must-reads of the yuppies and entrepreneurs and opportunists and faddists and marketers and digital schemers and reconstructed radlibs. These magazines were not fundamentally about business but about celebrity, heat, fashion. They were the new business culture. Forbes was the old.

But old and new are in bad shape now. Fortune and Business Week are certainly no fun anymore. And at Forbes, for the first time, they’ve had to lay off staff, sell from the collections (those preposterous Fabergé eggs!), even ask senior execs to take pay cuts.

So, what if? What if the market doesn’t soon recover? What if we continue to see corruption behind every boardroom door? What if I and other chattering sorts get to be socialists again? What if the pendulum has really swung as dramatically as that?

This is an exciting possibility for me: the collapse of monoliths, the end of business talk, a return to a cottage media industry (oddly, not unlike the Forbes company itself), the rise of new (old) values to complement a falling GDP (this really will be weird), and a new, widely shared antipathy for CEOs and fat cats everywhere (Cheney and Halliburton, Bush and the Harken Energy Corporation – ha!).

And it might well be, I think, an exciting possibility for Tim Forbes (and for Steve and their brothers, Bob and Kip). “If the world becomes more hostile to business, it just makes our job easier,” Tim said, with something like irony.

I would not say that there was, on the Forbes boat, exactly a mood of giddiness (or that the Forbeses have ever been giddy). But, possibly, something was in the air: a sense of renewed mission. Dennis Kneale, the Young Turk (at 44) who was brought in from the Wall Street Journal a few years ago to liven things up, was energetically announcing a “Free Martha” campaign. There was a not unhappy sense of this being time to circle the wagons, of capitalism having to be defended once more from hoi polloi.

“I do believe we do things right in this country,” Tim remarked, with, for him, a fair degree of passion.

It will, of course, not be the business culture that Forbes is defending but, rather, business itself. The Forbeses, too, may well take some pleasure in the collapse of monoliths, the end of business talk as a popular pastime (business talk, business secrets, should be the province of businessmen), and an affirmation of their own, stand-alone business model (I suspect the Forbeses will, however, remain great defenders, possibly among the last defenders, of Cheney-Bush business ethics).

It occurs to me that while subscribing to the Forbes attitude might not have made businessmen more ethical, it would certainly have been wise on everyone’s part to play it, Forbes-style, a little more conservatively. Businessmen get in trouble not just because of accounting tricks but because they think they’re something more than faceless businessmen. They overreach – whereas at Forbes, a businessman plays it close to the vest.

Yes. The arrivistes and wannabes screwed things up, but now the natural order may be righted.

On the yacht, you’ll have the true believers in capitalism (in their madras jackets), and on dry land, everyone else – hurling insults at them.

E-mail: michael@burnrate.com

Out of Business