The saga that cast Lakshmi Mittal on one side and Guy Dollé on another brought much excitement to the staid world of steel industry. This wasn’t a merger battle between two grey businessmen in black suits, fighting over a featureless product made in a hot furnace. This conflict between Mittal and the then chairman and CEO of Arcelor had the drama of a cultural clash, it was tinged with racial overtones, and it made the broader point of the historic rise of Asia and the transfer of wealth, influence, and power from the West to the East.
Deal maker: Mittal’s business decisions get little scrutiny in the book; it has more anecdotes than analysis.
Tim Bouquet and Byron Ousey have written what they claim to be an authoritative account of that battle, called Cold Steel: Britain’s Richest Man and the Multi-billion Dollar Battle for a Global Empire.
Ousey brings his vast experience as a public relations expert, and insider’s knowledge, having advised the Luxembourg government how to respond to this fast-moving story, something on a scale far bigger than what the territory had known. Bouquet is a journalist, whose accomplishments include being the first British reporter to have been granted full access to the Mittals, who cooperated with the writing of the book.
Books by insiders, or people close to protagonists, can be extremely useful, as the writers are able to provide a close look at the way deals are structured and empires change hands. They may not be entirely accurate — as the kerfuffle over Scott McClellan’s memoirs shows — and are, by definition, self-serving. The extent to which the two parties — the Mittals and the Luxembourg government — were involved with any vetting is not known, but the book reads as if it seeks not to offend anyone. Nothing wrong with that in particular: Offending the subject is not the prerequisite of such books, and there are sound legal reasons to get books vetted and maintain a civil tone. But it seems as if the book is written with punches pulled, which drains it of the drama the story naturally has.
Such books run the risk of overstating the positives and understating mistakes. If Brian Burroughs and John Helyar can justly claim to have written one of the finest business books in a long time — Barbarians at the Gate — it is because the two journalists reported the story of the leveraged buyout of RJR Nabisco, and not only did they provide readers with an exposure to the Wall Street culture, but also to personalities such as F. Ross Johnson and Henry Kravis. With a fascinating eye for detail, delving deep into formative experiences in the lives of people being written about, Messers Burroughs and Helyar helped us understand why the people acted the way they did. Cold Steel does not help us do that. We can infer from the anecdotes; the analysis is missing.
It is not that men of steel are, or have to be, as dull as Clark Kent. But there is much more to explain why Mittal acts the way he does, and what prompted Dollé to call his rival the maker of “a cheap eau de cologne”. There is enough material in the book to connect the dots and form an analysis, but doing it should not be left to the reader. It is a delicate balance — between spoon-feeding a reader, and providing just enough detail to form the right conclusion — and Cold Steel doesn’t do that.
The book is meant to be a quickie about the most important European business story of that year (or even of globalization that year — this was the deal that went through, unlike China National Offshore Oil Corp.’s attempt to buy Unocal, and Dubai Port World’s aim to get control of US ports, but it is not racy enough.
The book appears more than a year after the transaction settled; when Mittal now goes to Paris, he can expect an invitation from President Sarkozy and his wife Carla Bruni — contrast that with the time when a French cabinet minister questioned the wisdom of the merger. In a book about a recent event with a known outcome (there are no surprises here), what the reader wants are fresh insights. There are few.
Worse, there are clichés: The negotiating team is “heavyweight”, a Ukrainian politician is “charismatic”, the rest is always “history”, the opportunity, inevitably “once-in-a-lifetime”, and rivals are “arch”. This, within the first 30 pages. There are other tired descriptions, such as describing Mittal’s background as penniless.
Now Mittal was born in a small town in Rajasthan and had a tough childhood, including a difficult life in Kolkata — but was it a “penniless” background? Was St Xavier’s College really reluctant to admit him, despite his excellent marks, because of his non-Christian background? Maybe Mittal believes that, but have the writers probed enough of the ethos of Jesuit education in India to conclude whether such discrimination was possible?
Anecdotally extravagant, Cold Steel bears the mark of a good magazine article going on and on, lacking the perceptive depth of a book, where colour replaces clarity, and description becomes shorthand for analysis.
Mittal’s business actions get little critical scrutiny. His cost-cutting is praised, but its impact on steel towns, with their guarantee of lifetime jobs, is ignored. This is not to suggest Mittal owes a job to every union-protected worker at a bloated Soviet-style steel plant. But it would be fair to expect from a serious book some discussion of those strategies. Granted, the book is not about Mittal, but it would have been useful to see some analysis of the hard bargaining Mittal Steel in dulges in. Take Liberia, the pathetically poor war-torn country. After public criticism, Mittal renegotiated a deal on fairer terms to Liberia, but an examination of that — or the moral dilemma Mittal faced when he bought the Prijedor mine in Republika Srpska in Bosnia-Herzegovina — is not discussed at all. The Prijedor mine, it was alleged, sat on a site where war crimes were committed, and human rights groups had asked the Mittals not to work the mine until evidence was gathered.
Again, to their great credit, the Mittals did not rush in. They even offered to build a memorial to war victims, but the divided town refused, showing the limits of what can be achieved through corporate citizenship alone in healing wounds.
To read any of this, you’d have to go elsewhere, such as the work of the Law School Clinic at Columbia University, or reports of Global Witness and Amnesty International.
(Disclosure: I had researched the human rights dimensions of post-conflict privatization programmes in Bosnia-Herzegovina, with the Prijedor Mine being one case study for one such report, and as I note here, the Mittals did what they could; it was not their responsibility to “fix” the Balkan problem).
The Mittals represent a complex group, and even if this book is focused on one large transaction, the readers would be served far better with a more curious set of writers. But then such writers would not have had access.
(Disclosure time again: I wrote a piece supporting the Mittal move, purely on economic grounds, and criticized European protectionism in an op-ed column in The International Herald Tribune; I was not able to secure an interview with the Mittals despite several requests, for a longer profile).
Curiosity kills the cat. But satisfaction brings it back. In its absence, we have a detailed, readable steel-solid book, not icy cold, nor fiery hot, but somewhat tepid.
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