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The PowerPoint Potboiler

The literary vaudeville

Terry Waghorn, The System: A Story of Intrigue and Market Domination (Perseus Publishing, 2002).

Scan the kiosks of any airport bookseller and you’re sure to see the management manifesto du jour jammed against the latest techno (or psycho, political, or crime) thriller. The pulp purveyors know the tastes of the business class well: if they’re not looking for the killer insight, they’re looking for a more sublime rendering of the competitive warfare that consumes their days. But which to choose: trying to find an edge or getting a few moments of well-deserved escape? In this era of widespread executive time poverty, that zero-sum choice is a tough call. Credit Terry Waghorn, a “thought leader on business strategy and corporate renewal” for KPMG, for combining these two genres in The System.

Fortunately, this hero has already tangled with the caprices of fortune. His parents bequeathed him “two homes, a yacht, a fleet of luxury cars, a $600 million company, and a mountain of debt that was on the verge of collapse.”

Splattered with blood and explanatory charts, and suffused with consultant-flavored prose, The System brings dry theory to life through a crackling tale of “intrigue and market domination.” The body count doesn’t approach the levels of, say, the latest installment of Rogue Warrior, but there is enough gunplay to satisfy all but the most bloodthirsty armchair Rambo. The System tells the story of Timothy E. Hunt and David Atkinson as they struggle to transform lumbering conglomerate Quenetics, which is facing a loss of faith by the market, into the “most powerful Web-based company the world has ever seen.” (There are plenty of quaint, so-1999 moments like this.) Some of their enemies are also willing to kill to get their hands on the breakthrough job development technology that would put Quenetics, basically a temp company, on top. The host of foes to be swayed, snookered, or snuffed out includes imperious pension-fund managers, a comically inept Italian-American hit man from Chicago, a sinister Iranian assassin, a murderously jealous executive, and some numerically challenged reporters. Perhaps the most dangerous character of all is David’s half-sister Shannon. She, a part-owner of Quenetics and 100 percent man-eater, possesses “the body of an aerobics instructor and the face of a cover girl”—the sort of femme fatale business travelers can easily recognize from the erotic thrillers that run late at night on hotel cable.

David and Timothy get a hint of the dark forces ranged against them when they nearly succumb to the contaminated air someone has put in their scuba tanks. (Diving is the executive leisure-time activity that brought the duo together: they met off Cozumel sometime back and hit it off because “they were both highly successful businessmen with a passion for life and the possibility to live it to the fullest.”) Having survived death in their wetsuits, things don’t get much better when they return home to Boston, where takeover threats loom, a trusted aide is whacked, and, most ominously, Quenetics’s share price starts falling. It’s too much for David, who takes to swilling snifter after snifter of cognac in his suburban mansion.

That leaves rescuing Quenetics to Timothy. Fortunately, this hero has already tangled with the caprices of fortune. His parents had been killed “in a mysterious car accident” days before his thirty-third birthday, bequeathing him “two homes, a yacht, a fleet of luxury cars, a $600 million company, and a mountain of debt that was on the verge of collapse.” Against seemingly insurmountable odds, Timothy broke up this troubled legacy, sold it, and plowed the proceeds into venture capital schemes. Out of this crucible emerged a billionaire with “ample time for traveling, skiing, rock-climbing, snowboarding, cycling, or diving, and going out with a series of women while fastidiously avoiding settling down with any of them.”

To save Quenetics, Timothy focuses on a simple mantra (helpfully italicized and highlighted in the text so the reader can remember it, too): Focus, Fortify, and Foster Futurity. To translate: stick to what you’re best at, differentiate yourself from the competition, and don’t get complacent. Pretty solid management theory. Here’s how Timothy applies it: Quenetics will ditch its ancillary units and focus on its temp—sorry, “interim staffing”—business. Using technology developed by one of Timothy’s other businesses, Quenetics will “own” the concept of self-development by marketing an online service to companies that allows their employees to learn job skills, assess their strengths and weaknesses, and (with the help of headhunters) figure out their market price. As David enthuses, it’s a “thinking machine that, over time, would get to know more about the person using it than that person would know about themselves.”

Talk about fostering futurity! This new technology would quantify a company’s intellectual capital, which would make it, like other capital, fungible. It could be bought and sold as if it were any other asset, with attendant futures trading and arbitrage—an arrangement that would end, no doubt, with some schemers manipulating the market to a degree that would make the Enron crew look like pikers. (But that’s getting ahead of the author.) Mesmerized by visions of human capital auctions, Tim can’t see any downside to his creation. He forges fixedly forward and ignores the doubters and haters who dismiss his beloved invention as pie in the sky—technologically impossible! Orwellian! Too intimidating for technophobes! (But a more fundamental question remains unasked: Why would a company buy his gizmo, when it would make it easy for its employees to find out what they’re really worth?)

Not to ruin the surprise, but Tim triumphs over these skeptics. He also survives—barely—a more deadly attack, thanks to his Natty Bumppo-like hearing, which picks up the sound of a snapping twig, allowing him to make a last-second evasive move. He is wounded, but he gets the satisfaction of watching a SWAT team (called in by his security advisor) take out his nemesis. “The assassin’s head seemed to disintegrate before his eyes.”

The novel ends with PowerPoint slides detailing Tim’s paradigm-rocking product (labeled as “Supplementary material for Tim and David’s upcoming speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce”—finally the big time!). Unfortunately, the reader will wait in vain to find out how well Quenetics’s self-development product serves its customers. One thrills to think of what it might do in the hands of some Jack Welch type looking to inspire that productivity- enhancing atmosphere of insecurity.

But perhaps Waghorn is saving that stuff for the sequels. Lord knows, there’s plenty of grist here. How about a little blowback from Quenetics’s old-economy business? Maybe some pissed-off Rust Belters could invade David’s McMansion to thank him for helping to bust their strike back in ’94? Or, maybe Tim could take some hot lead on the slopes from a middle manager canned for having too Iowan “affiliative score”? There’s plenty of two-fisted corporate morality tales to be told. And the losers can lose, over and over. Why not let our laissez faire nightmares bleed into our corporate intrigue novels? Don’t our business travelers deserve the very best?