Features | From Pivot Magazine

The best business books of 2019 

Inside the pages of the 2019 National Business Book Award finalists   

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Four books: Railroader, Meltdown, Hockey Fight in Canada, Right-Hand ManThe finalists for the 2019 National Business Book Award (Images provided)

The topics of the National Business Book Award (NBBA) nominees tend to rise and fall with the headlines.

But past nominees still have a certain underlying consistency. Solid biographies of significant individuals or corporations—especially ones with tragic narrative arcs—generally get shortlisted and often take home the prize: in 2016, veteran business writer Jacquie McNish won, with Sean Silcoff, for Losing the Signal: The Spectacular Rise and Fall of BlackBerry; and also in 2005, with Sinclair Stewart, for Wrong Way: The Fall of Conrad Black. And, in tribute to its significance in the national economy, there’s always room for a good book about the ups and downs of Alberta’s oil patch—five of the last 12 winners have been, to a greater or lesser degree, about oil.

But not this year. Despite its ubiquity in the news cycle, oil didn’t make the four-title shortlist in 2019. But the winner of the $30,000 prize, Meltdown: Why Our Systems Fail and What We Can Do About It, hit the zeitgeist nail on the head. Meltdown, by former derivatives trader Chris Clearfield and University of Toronto management professor András Tilcsik, targets something that can never be far from the minds of contemporary business leaders: ever more complex systems that can and do crash ever more spectacularly. Nuclear disaster might be the worst imaginable, but plummeting aircraft and leaked financial information are also horror stories for those affected and those in charge. What to do about it, in a world seemingly bent on handing over systems management to AI autopilot, is not as clear as the problem itself, although Clearfield and Tilcsik remain hopeful that humanity can catch up to its own inventions and bring “the golden age of meltdowns” to an end.

This year’s NBBA nominees also include two excellent biographies of business titans. Broadcast journalist Howard Green, a two-time Emmy nominee, got the nod for Railroader: The Unfiltered Genius and Controversy of Four-time CEO Hunter Harrison. The title neatly captures the hard-driven personality of Harrison, who kept barrelling down the track until two days before his death at 73 in 2017. One of the most significant figures in Canadian railway history—two of those four CEO jobs were the two Canadian positions, at Canadian National Railway and Canadian Pacific Railway—and possibly themost controversial, American-born Harrison upended an iconic Canadian industry and richly deserves Green’s eye-popping account of his career.

An innovative take on another colourful visionary can be found in Right Hand Man: How Phil Lind Guided the Genius of Ted Rogers, Canada’s Foremost Entrepreneur. The long-time right-hand man himself, with the aidof writer Robert Brehl—who helped Rogers craft his 2008 autobiography, Relentless—offers an insider account of what shaped Rogers and his telecom empire. It’s a book notable not just for Lind’s eyewitness testimony, but for his shrewd emphasis on a quality any would-be Canadian cultural industry entrepreneur needs: Rogers’ skill in adapting to, and even changing, the thick regulatory blanket that envelops that sector of the economy. 

Rogers’ conglomerate also takes centre stage in the final shortlisted book, Hockey Fight in Canada: The Big Media Faceoff Over the NHL, by Globe and Mail sports writer David Shoalts. The 2013 battle over whether the NHL would abandon its traditional partner, poor cousin CBC, and award the rights to air NHL games to newly flush Rogers, was a traditional dog-eat-dog business clash on the surface. But underneath, it spoke volumes about the changing value of sports franchises, the decline of traditional broadcasting and the search by tech giants for new revenue streams as hardware sales plateau. 

CPA Canada is a proud sponsor of the National Business Book Award. “The NBBA has its finger on the pulse of the business world in our country,” says Heather Whyte, Pivot’s publisher. “CPA Canada is thrilled to support an endeavour that recognizes outstanding talent in Canadian business writing.”