Review: Kochland: The Secret History of Koch Industries and Corporate Power in America

Kochland: The Secret History of Koch Industries and Corporate Power in America by Christopher Leonard
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a long book - the hardcover edition runs 574 pages, while the audiobook (which I listened to) is over 23 hours long. It tells the story of the rise of Koch Industries.

To tell the story of the growth of Koch Industries, the author goes into many individual tales to illustrate the turns in that growth. As someone who spent 30 years working in corporate America, in Fortune 500 manufacturing companies, there were many many things discussed that are similar to what I saw at the companies I have worked with. The fixation on Edward Deming and his quality / continuous improvement practices are part of the foundation of Lean Manufacturing which is very common throughout industry. When the company made mistakes they learned from them and modified their approach to the benefit of the corporation - for example, when early emphasis on productivity and continuous improvement led the company into quality and environmental issues that garnered negative attention and large regulatory fines, Koch shifted to a "100% compliant, 100% of the time" approach to keep the company's reputation intact and to keep regulatory issues at bay. Again not an uncommon story across industry. Even the much discussed Koch "market based management" seems to be an amalgam of America's long-running push for entrepreneurialism, coupled with reliance on activity based costing within a corporate setting, designed to make managers feel more like business owners. This approach has been quite common in corporate America since the late 70s.

What's different is Charles Koch. He kept his company private and kept the profits plowed back into the company early on to ensure growth. He emphasized growth and pursued a "trader's philosophy" of seeking out and exploiting "holes" in markets where his firm with it's private knowledge of it's own activity could leverage those opportunities. The author makes the case that Koch was an early entrant into the mergers and acquisitions game and that as a private company willing to play "the long game" they had distinct advantages in that game. All of these things set Koch Industries apart and played a role in contributing to it's success.

What's really different about Charles Koch are his corporate-libertarian beliefs, and the political power he has amassed to pursue those beliefs, which he has done with much success. This story is told at the very end of the book and the story is one of a methodical concentration of political power that is quite chilling.

While the book is clearly well researched and holds your attention throughout I gave it three stars because I think it could have been just as effective without being as long. I learned alot about Koch Industries and Charles Koch that I didn't know, and I think the book is worth reading. Just be ready to invest the time into it.