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on 6 September 2009
What are we to make of `Business Nightmares'? Having only discovered the BBC's sporadically-interesting-but-increasingly-predictable Dragon's Den after series two, I never saw Rachel Elnaugh on the box. So I've come to `Business Nightmares' with no preconceptions. Which is just as well, because it really isn't your standard business memoir.
In your standard business memoir, a suit with a big ego goes on over 300 pages or so about his or her (usually his) wonderful career. There's a chapter on his upbringing (a hard struggle that drummed into him the virtues of hard work and thrift). There's a chapter on his early struggles in business (more character forming); his breakthrough; the inevitable fall from grace; and the equally inevitable rise to yet greater heights (owing to his extraordinary personal qualities, refusal to give in etc). Opportunities for gloating and axe-grinding are rarely overlooked. And there are liberal sprinklings of wisdom gained from a lifetime at the coalface. Like a bad novel there's a pattern to it: the hero always gets the girl, it's just that in this case the girl is secondary to $2.6 billion in share options.
Ms Elnaugh's book is different, and that's both its strength and its weakness. On the plus side, she comes across as a real person. The grating sound of axes being ground (her accountants, her CFO, her bank, her ex-husband, and one or two of her fellow `dragons' may feel the tang of cold steel on their necks) pervades parts of the book. But there isn't the nastiness you get with some business memoirs. When she says of Lord Archer "any nerves I may have had evaporate in the warmth of the sheer charisma and positive energy that surrounds the man," you can imagine her being genuinely nervous as his butler ushers her into his lordship's presence. In the same way, you can imagine her crying in the taxi home as, heavily pregnant, she struggles to save her business from the receivers, and making the mistakes that led to it slipping from her hands in the first place. At the centre of this book - as at the centre of all businesses - there is a real person.
Perhaps this explains some of the weaknesses. Rachel Elnaugh's roller coaster ride with `Red Letter Days' didn't last long enough to make for a substantial book: even now she's only in her mid-forties. The numbers, and the awards, may look impressive on a first reading, but it was never a particularly large company. So most of the book is filled with other people's business nightmares. Unfortunately, most people don't really like picking over their failures. And Ms Elnaugh clearly isn't a big enough figure in international business circles to call in many favours. So what follows is a mixture of interviews with obscure friends (Nick Wheeler of Charles Tyrwhitt Shirts anyone?), rehashes of stories that are so well known as not to need repeating (Gerald Ratner) and, most astonishingly of all, précis of other people's biographies.
Donald Trump is a case in point. It's hard to get an interview with `the Donald' but it's not impossible. I know, because a colleague of mine (at a minor trade publication) managed it. Rachel tried, failed and packed it in. "But I was determined to include Trump in this book", she says, so she cannibalised his biography instead. The chapters on James Dyson and Felix Dennis also read rather like hastily compressed biographies with a piece of `entrepreneurial wisdom' welded uncomfortably on top.
In the end, there's little new here. Easily the most interesting chapters concern her own experience; I was genuinely angered, though not particularly surprised, by her treatment at the hands of some of her `trusted advisors'. In fact, the message that comes across most clearly from `Business Nightmares' is, in business you can't afford to trust anyone. At the centre of all businesses there is a real person. Sadly, not all of them are as nice as Ms Elnaugh.