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Jack Stack Interview (MO Literary Festival)

Local businessman and author Jack Stack is one of the many writers participating in the Missouri Literary Festival, a celebration of arts, literature and literacy, Oct.2-4 at Hammons Field and the Creamery Arts Center. KSMU’s Randy Stewart talked with him recently by phone.

Jack Stack is President and C.E.O. of SRC Holding Corporation in Springfield, one of America’s leading small businesses, and the author of the best-selling business “how-to” book The Great Game of Business (1992). It’s considered THE seminal text on “open-book management.”

Stack defines “open-book” management as “a business pattern” that involves teaching a company’s employee/associates “all the elements of business, especially the financial; where, regardless of where you stand or what position you have inside of the company, the very first thing you are taught with us (SRC) is how the business makes money, and where the money goes.” The essential elements of open-book management are “transparency, honesty, and openness.” Stack feels too much time in the business world is spend on emphasizing vague concepts of “quality,” “delivery,” or “performance.” “You know, we’ve spent a lot of time kinda dumbing people down” by being less than open and transparent with associates about how a company actually works. Of course, to create a “great company,” Stack says you have to have quality and all those other elements. But too many companies, he says, emphasize “50 to 100 key performance measurements on their management and their associates, and they don’t have ONE measurement that results in cash! Where we should be spending more time is teaching people what it takes to make a great company.”

In 2002, Stack wrote a second book, A Stake in the Outcome. How did he decide to write these books? He says “the marketplace ASKED us” to write the first book; “the second book is (about) what kind of trouble you get into AFTER you’re successful!” Before starting Springfield Remanufacturing Company in 1983, Stack worked for the local International Harvester truck and tractor factory. He spent a short time in their P.R. department publishing a company newsletter, but “other than that I was virtually illiterate!” he says, laughing--at least when it came to knowing how to write a book and get it published! International Harvester closed its Springfield plant in the recession of the early 1980s, so Stack and a group of former IH workers decided to “re-teach ourselves on the elements of a company,” and start their own business.

The fact that SRC was freely opening their company books to their associates in the 1980s was a revolutionary concept. Stack says, “Anybody could build an engine… but to capture the MENTAL aspects of the business, that was NOT being captured in the work environment.” So when their started to open up their books, other companies took notice. Soon there were magazine and newspaper articles being written about Jack Stack’s business model. Finally Stack was contacted by an editor from Doubleday. She felt there was a niche in the marketplace for a business book that WASN’T just a dry text. Rather, she wanted a book written in such a way that readers would feel as if Stack were simply sitting across the table talking to them. Stack and his co-author Bo Burlingham wrote three drafts… all of which were rejected by the Doubleday editor, who said, “I don’t want ‘text’! I don’t want ‘text’! I want this to be a DIALOGUE!” So to write the fourth and final draft for The Great Game of Business, Stack and Burlingham went out on Table Rock Lake on a bass boat, and simply discussed their business theories into a tape recorder. The finished book consists mostly of a transcript of their conversations on that bass boat! Whatever they did, it worked: the book eventually sold 300,000 copies. Stack says he’s “supposed to do a last one when it’s over,” i.e. when he retires. In fact he thought about retiring last year, but decided to “stay around a while” after the current recession hit.

At the Missouri Literary Festival Jack Stack will conduct a panel discussion with two other authors/entrepreneurs, Norm Brodsky and his Great Game of Business co-author Bo Burlingham. Stack hopes they are able to communicate to attendees “not only as authors, but we’re practitioners. We all run businesses and we have a lot of experience, and we’re old enough to know how to survive…. You see, it’s very rare that you get a business book that’s written by a person that’s STILL WORKING! Most business books are written by ‘consultants,’ and they’re more outside observers than they are inside. And right now, I think that people need to talk to somebody in terms of what’s happening today, and how do people perceive what it’s going to look like tomorrow."

For information on Jack Stack or the Missouri Literary Festival, visit www.missouriliteraryfestival.org.