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Dion Dimucci

Lester Bangs in Buffalo

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The Cure In Concert

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History of Warner Brothers Music

Creolina's Cajun/Creole

People's Bar-B-Que and Soul Food

Penn Dutch Food Center


Originally published on Monday, July 4, 2005 in The Miami Herald

Acting like a small company is a big deal.
Companies that hold on to their core values and practices are among the most successful, according to research by author Jason Jennings.

Think Big, Act Small: How America's Best Performing Companies Keep the Start-up Spirit Alive. Jason Jennings. Portfolio. 220 pages

Think Big, Act Small
It's easy to talk the talk, but walking the walk is another matter entirely. We've seen too many companies that make all the right noises about the best practices, transparent management, raising stakeholder value, fanatical customer service, scrupulous honesty and other admirable values that are quickly abandoned amid the daily ebb and flow of business.

Even more difficult is to ''stay hungry.'' There are avaricious, predatory firms out there, but remarkably few that seem able to hold on to their original motivating principles and practices. And those among them that grow and are consistently profitable remain rarer still.

There are ample studies of well-known companies -- or flavors of the month -- but valuable lessons also come from analyzing firms that are successful over the long haul.

Writer Jason Jennings and his team of researchers identified nine companies that manifest steady profitability and growth. Most are regional operations that may be relatively unfamiliar, but here's the list: Cabela's, a sporting goods marketer; Dot Foods, a food service distributor; Koch Industries, a diversified (multi-industry) company; Medline Industries, a medical supplies outfit; O'Reilly Automotive, a retail and wholesale auto parts chain; PETCO, a retailer of pet supplies; SAS Institute, a software company; Sonic Drive-In, a fast-food chain; and Strayer Education, a multi-campus and online academic institution for adults.

Each chapter focuses on one firm and shows how they deal with 10 ''building blocks,'' which is what Jennings calls the fundamental practices common to each profiled company: be down to earth, keep your hands dirty, make short-term goals and long-term horizons, let go, have everyone think and act like an owner, invent new businesses, create win-win solutions, choose your competition, build communities and develop future leaders.

There are also subsets of each building block that serve to explain and expand upon the principles.

Jennings does a good job of detailing each organization's history without throwing in an excessive amount of minutiae. Some of the stories, however, seem a little too good to be true, with executives that are, perhaps, somewhat idealized, and situations that seem less morally ambiguous than those in real life.

But for illustrative, if not documentary, purposes I'm willing to suspend any minor disbelief. Besides, archetypes have been invoked throughout history to convey practical lessons and values.

I listened to the abridged audio version of this text and also read the book. Author Jennings reads his material well. He has a good voice, like a morning DJ on a Midwestern radio station, and lots of presence.

His inflections, however, were a bit, well, idiosyncratic. For example, ''grown'' grows from a one- to a two-syllable word, pronounced ''grow-in.'' Auto becomes ''otto,'' raw is ''rah'' and so forth. Takes a little getting used to, but the added flavor and authenticity provides something extra, perhaps like getting a baker's dozen bagels (or doughnuts).

Regardless, this is a good and valuable work. There are doubtless many firms that will benefit from studying these examples of companies that evolved and grew -- by staying the same.

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