Business school the butt of button-down humor
Boston — Each June, Harvard Business School sends forth hundreds of budding managers eager to dazzle corporate America with their financial wizardry, marketing savvy , and operational prowess.
But not every new lieutenant from the West Point of capitalism is mapping a frontal assault on the executive suite of a Fortune 500 company. Two 1982 Harvard Business School (HBS) graduates are hoping to fatten their money fund balances by targeting managers' funny bones.
''There hasn't been a funny business book in a long time,'' says HBS graduate Robert Barron.
Mr. Barron and co-author Jim Fisk have remedied that with a 237-page book, ''The Official MBA Handbook, or How to Succeed in Business Without a Harvard MBA.'' The book pokes fun at HBS and its case study method, the MBA degree, and business life in general. It's not so much side-slapping humor as chuckle-type wit, especially for those with some knowledge of management ''science.''
For instance, there's a case study that parodies the idea of synergy in corporate mergers, that is, the theory that a corporate combination can produce bigger results than two concerns operating separately. This ''merger of the decade'' combines ''firms that sold jeans for three times what they were worth and sold genetic-engineering stock for 100 times what it was worth.'' The merged company is called ''Synergene.''
Then there's ''The Feedlot,'' a restaurant which treats its customers like cattle, dining them in batches of exactly 42 guests to fit the size of the tables, and so on. This makes fun of mass production techniques.
The authors argue the $4.95 book is a cost-effective alternative to shelling out the $27,000 it costs an unmarried student to attend HBS for two years. The first chapter advises reading the book and then being ''as argumentative as possible. It shouldn't be long before you too are capable of solving the problems of the world in 60 minutes.''
To help the aspiring manager in a hurry, the book offers a quick review of major MBA courses. Finance, for instance, is described as ''the study of money and how it violates the rules of mathematics and common sense.'' The book goes on to offer a tongue-in-cheek guide to corporate life, including such essential subjects as ''Strategic Wardrobe Management.''
Finally, readers are provided with an irreverent, but accurate, guide to business buzzwords. Net Present Value, or NPV, for instance, is described as ''The value of projected 'cash flows' returned by an investment, discounted back to the present. For example, the NPV of the $300-a-week pension you expect to get 20 years from now, discounted back to the present at current inflation rates , is worth about enough to buy you a hot pastrami sandwich.''
Sales indicate that Harvard-trained managers may have a sense of humor. In the first 10 days the book was displayed at the Harvard Cooperative Society it sold 1,000 copies, ''which is a record,'' says Chuck Dresner, who supervises the Coop's paperback book buying. ''Most business books are sleepers.''
The MBA Handbook is selling much faster than ''The Official Preppy Handbook, '' Mr. Dresner says. ''But we don't know if it has staying power.''
With cash registers ringing for business spoofs, other 1982 HBS grads are planning to hit the market with spinoff products. In two months a singing group called The MBAs is planning to issue its first record, titled ''Born to Run Things.'' This four-piece group in three-piece suits sings songs parodying the reputation some MBAs have for not being self-effacing.
While the record isn't likely to make it to the top of the pop charts, the book's authors hope to amuse managers who live beyond the banks of the Charles River. When the book goes on sale nationwide later this month it may appeal to the 500,000 men and women who have earned MBA degrees and escaped with a sense of humor about the experience.
There is an even larger market of managers eager to chuckle at the expense of overconfident MBAs who often receive fatter salaries than individuals who got their business training on the firing line. For example, last year's Harvard business grads had median starting salaries of $29,000 if they went into the textile industry, $36,050 if they chose investment banking, and $46,100 if they went into consulting, according to William Hokanson, the school's communications director.
To protect the salaries they will claim as investment bankers starting this fall, the books' authors wrote under pen names. Mr. Fisk was actually a speculator who tried to corner the US gold supply during the Grant administration. And Robert Barron is a reference to the robber barons who headed some major corporations at the turn of the century or earlier.
The book sprang from the authors' collaboration in 1981 on a poster entitled ''Bedtime for Brezhnev.'' This political spoof of a cowboy poster featured a white-hatted President Reagan ''bringing justice to a black-hatted desperado, Brezhnev,'' Mr. Barron says. Profits from the poster paid both authors' second-year tuition at HBS.
Mr. Barron notes that a book company executive they showed the poster to asked, ''Can you kids write?'' Barron said yes, even though his only other previous work was entitled ''Early Uses of Cost Accounting in American Textile Mills.'' He quips, ''There wasn't too much latitude for humor there.''