The student chosen to speak at the undergraduate commencement ceremony at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School, John Reichl, decided to tell his classmates about a favorite business book.
It wasn’t one of the classics like “The Innovator’s Dilemma” or “Built to Last.” He skipped those and reached back about 125 years, to a little treasure of a book called “The Business Guide; or, Safe Methods of Business.”
Reichl would be the first to admit this book is chock full of information of little apparent value to Carlson grads in 2015, such as how to avoid falling for a barbed wire swindle. But Reichl shared three good lessons at commencement, and he could have easily come up with 30 more.
Hopefully his classmates understood the fine little gift he gave them — the insight that there are plenty of fundamental and unchanging truths in the world of business. And it’ll take a while to learn them.
Reichl got his copy of the Business Guide his sophomore year, about the time he decided to abandon neuroscience and a future as a medical doctor for a career in business. It was a gift from his grandfather, Henry Lewer, now retired after enjoying a long career as an auto dealer in Waseca.
In a conversation earlier this week, Lewer explained that he had found an edition of the Business Guide among his own grandfather’s things, in a family house dating from 1868 that has since been turned over to the Waseca County Historical Society.
Lewer said his grandfather, also named Henry, was a German immigrant from Hanover best known as a farmer. He can’t say for sure when his grandfather bought the Business Guide, but he knows it was his personal copy, given his grandfather’s signature.
“John is such an interesting young man, and he just devours everything he reads,” Lewer said of his grandson. “I just wanted to share it with him, because I knew he would enjoy reading that kind of literature. It would just sit on a shelf at my house.”
In fact it’s remarkable how much pure fun can be had reading a guide to practical business management first published in the late 19th century. After a scanned 1907 edition finished downloading here, the rest of the morning quickly disappeared.
The Business Guide was written by J.L. Nichols, the principal of a business college in Naperville, Ill. In an introduction to the first edition, the publisher pointed out that for want of the information contained in the book, many millions of dollars routinely get wasted in litigation and millions more are lost to “the trickery of confidence men and sharpers in general.”
Never mind what he said in the title, Nichols didn’t really hope his readers played it safe. He instead seemed to be shooting for what today gets called street smart. For example, before buying a stack of hay, don’t you think it would be a good idea to estimate just how much hay is really sitting there?
If you don’t know how to do that, see page 356.
He covered a lot of other ground, from the right congratulatory letter to write a woman about to be married to how to not be a sucker when buying lightning rods.
Nichols thought of business as a profession, but he didn’t romanticize it, even including a helpful section on business failures. He thought businesses fail because the owner lacks management skills, and also because of flaws of character that can be fixed, things like not persevering through difficult times or foolishly trying to get rich quickly.
The word “strategy” doesn’t turn up at all, but “character” sure does, along with abundant tips and reference tables. Even those tables in the back of the book provide snippets of wisdom.
In addition to how many three-penny nails are in a pound, Nichols thought it might be good to know that a career of cigar smoking would cost more than $34,000 in 1907 dollars. He didn’t scold anyone for smoking, but by showing that eye-popping cost, he didn’t need to.
“I originally wasn’t even going to [talk] about the book,” Reichl said, a few days after commencement. “I had kind of a writer’s block as I was trying to write the speech, and the book just happened to be sitting on my desk.”
Thus inspired, the talk he gave started with Nichols’ encouragement to “not take too much advice” and “think for yourself,” which Reichl boiled down to the importance of critical thinking.
His next lesson came from Nichols’ insistence on kind manners at all times in business, and he concluded his talk by cherry-picking a business maxim off a long list of them that Nichols provided.
“Undertake no business without mature reflection,” Nichols had advised. That’s what Reichl advised his classmates to do, too.
“That one was really kind of a personal choice,” he said. “For me, it was reflecting on why I was doing business, and encouraging my peers to do the same. Maybe they hadn’t, maybe they had grown up in business. Early in your career is a good time to do it.”
Reichl has already been admitted to the Harvard Business School for an MBA with plans to first work for the global consulting firm McKinsey & Co. From our conversation, it’s clear he considers them both opportunities for more mature reflection on what kind of work in business he really wants to do.
Reichl said he went off to college on a path toward a career in medicine “to make the world a better place, if even for just one person.” Now that he’s decided instead on a career in business, he said, that’s still what he hopes to do.
J.L. Nichols would have approved. More than 120 years ago, he wrote that “by prosecuting a useful business energetically, humanity is benefited.”