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Cents and sensibility: 4 new business books you should be reading

The Firm: The story of McKinsey and Its Secret Influence on American Business, By Duff McDonald

The Firm: The story of McKinsey and Its Secret Influence on American Business

By Duff McDonald

Simon and Schuster, 400 pages, $34.99

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"McKinsey is working with us." With those five words, chief executive officers over the past eight decades have proclaimed to the world that they should be taken seriously – because they have enlisted the help of the most powerful brand in the consulting industry. U.S.-based McKinsey & Co. is the juggernaut that sits atop that brainy elite of company-helpers known as strategic consultants. Duff McDonald has written a breezy, entertaining book about McKinsey's glorious past, and its somewhat checkered present. It is refreshingly light on buzz words and heavy on personalities, as he takes us through the eras of managing directors, from founder James McKinsey in the 1920s right up to the calm Canadian-born Dominic Barton, who has dealt with fallout from a scandal that saw his predecessor convicted for insider trading. A fascinating tale, deftly told.

Looptail: How One Company Changed the World by Reinventing Business

By Bruce Poon Tip, Harper Collins, 288 pages, $29.99

Books written entirely in the first person can be tedious and there are moments when you tire of the author's incessant "I." Still, this book provides insight into the mind of the entrepreneur, as well as the ego of Mr. Poon Tip, founder of Toronto-based G Adventures. Note the grandiose subtitle – and yet this is a travel company, and not a very big one at that. But there are gems here – such as how he encountered prejudice growing up in Calgary as a young ethnic-Chinese immigrant from Trinidad. The best parts are on people management – and how he ruthlessly weeds out even loyal long-time employees if he sees them as necessarily expendable for future growth. All this from a man whose Looptail philosophy promises happiness and freedom.

Hedge Hogs: The Cowboy Traders Behind Wall Street's Largest Hedge Fund Disaster

By Barbara T. Dreyfuss, Random House, 320 pages, $31

Hedge Hogs has a thrilling premise – how a very personal showdown between two macho energy traders led to a spectacular $9-billion hedge-fund collapse and touched all our lives through the price we pay for fuel. But the book starts off like a wet firecracker, as the author describes her own career and her increasing exposure to this new unregulated phenomenon called hedge funds. Fortunately, it picks up speed as Dreyfuss focuses on the two traders, Calgarian Brian Hunter and Texan John Arnold, whose High Noon-style showdown put the entire financial system at risk. And yet they come across as cardboard cowboys, largely because she never got a chance to interview them. The book works best as a clarion call for regulation to protect us from the egos of financial gunslingers.

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The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die

By Niall Ferguson, The Penguin Press, 192 pages, $28.50

With nice hair and firm jaw, Ferguson is the current intellectual glamourpuss, a photogenic professor who writes big-idea books in words we can understand. And this is a quick, economical read, based on a series of BBC lectures that outline his take on the decline of Western institutions. People appalled at reading Hedge Hogs will be interested in Ferguson's stance that markets today suffer from too much regulation and too little enforcement. His best part is on the decline of civil society – or why the Rotary Club lies at the heart of a vibrant civilization. None of his points is particularly original and he generously credits scholarly influences. But even Ferguson lite is more interesting than just about anyone else in the pop-intellectual game.

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