Paul Brown achieved executive success early in life, in the cutthroat capitalist “paradise” of the early 1980s. He was one of the leaders of a project in which his company, Camp, Dresser & McKee (CDM) partnered with Westrend Development to bid on the privatization of the water treatment plant in Scottsdale, AZ. In his book, TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE: Scottsdale and Privatization in the 1980s, he outlines the story of that project, and of the disastrously-timed investments in real estate that followed it, with rueful, wistful, sometimes self-deprecating humor and the frank 20/20 vision that comes with hindsight. He does not spare himself, pointing out incidents where his judgment was flawed or where he reacted impulsively, either in outbursts of optimism or temper, when he should not have done. But he also points out the lessons that he and others learned from the process, and shows a reasonable and philosophical perspective on his career and on the corporate culture of the 1980s.
On one hand, there’s a distinct note of nostalgia here, for all the cheerful corporate optimism, corner offices, fancy restaurants, high-powered dealmaking and all that – on the other hand, there’s a clear and rather sad look at how easily all that could turn to dust with one or a few poorly-timed decisions, and how deceptive the view through rose-colored glasses turned out to be. The book meanders quite a bit – Brown is inclined to dwell lovingly on the history of places and people, which will delight readers who enjoy storytelling and a richly-drawn background, but irritate those looking to get on with the story at the heart of the book. Given that the book involves the cooperation of a sizable number of people, and a wide range of places – from hotels, airports, and restaurants to whole cities, and from Boston to Arizona – and that all of them are given this lavish background-story treatment, it is sometimes easy to lose the thread of what is actually going on and how people relate to each other and to the projects in question. But Brown does an excellent job of capturing atmospheres, so that you can almost feel the excitement or anxiety or disappointment of any given moment in the tale, even if the next chapter redirects you into a history of Scottsdale’s settlement or a loving ode to a particular restaurant’s zabaglione. Above all, this is an interesting primary-source look at 1980s American corporate culture, a historical moment in time captured in the course of one story that offers a clear and thoughtful perspective on the era’s mood, its mistakes, and its lessons.
A half-nostalgic, half-tragic (in the Greek sense) reminiscence about privatization, corporate dealmaking, and hubris, TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE is a thoughtful and intelligent look back at 1980s corporate culture from the perspective of someone who lived it.
~Catherine Langrehr for IndieReader