The decade's first must-read biz book

Surprise! The most riveting tale of recent years centers on corn feed and price fixing in Decatur, Ill.


Ilan Greenberg
October 4, 2000 11:00PM (UTC)

By all rights, Silicon Valley was supposed to produce the most riveting business book of the 1990s. In search of the Holy Grail of technology, business reporters spent years camping out in corporate meeting rooms, swilling coffee with marketing vice presidents and digesting endless white-board presentations. Hoping to write a business journalism classic to rival bestsellers like "Barbarians at the Gate" and "Den of Thieves," writers chronicled tiny start-ups, industry behemoths, hyperactive venture capitalists and zoned-out coders. Big guns from the Wall Street beat, like Michael Lewis, parachuted into Santa Clara County, Calif., to take the pulse of the dot-com revolution.

While some of the books were not bad -- Lewis' "The New New Thing" was one of the best -- the most thrilling, far-reaching and significant business book in years is not about Silicon Valley at all, but a tale of corn feed and price fixing set in Decatur, Ill.

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For most people, the Archer Daniels Midland Company, surgically disemboweled in Kurt Eichenwald's "The Informant," is a nonentity, only vaguely recognized for its ads ("Supermarket to the world") during Sunday morning political talk shows. If ADM elicits a negative reaction at all, the complaint is likely to spring from TV journalist David Brinkley's unfortunate decision to lend his credibility to a company long associated with sponsoring his show.

Readers of newspaper business pages during the mid-'90s may recall pieces of the story behind "The Informant," but they are unlikely to remember or to have ever understood how profound and bizarre this price-fixing tale of agricultural products was. After reading the book, however, it's impossible not to have an opinion. Using hundreds of hours of FBI tapes and acres of original research, Eichenwald, a New York Times reporter, shows company executives conspiring with Asian competitors to fix the price of a host of food products -- most notably lysine, a livestock feed additive that fattens pigs and chickens -- that squeezed struggling farmers at the worst time and significantly raised the price of basic food for everyone.

"Over slightly less than a century," Eichenwald tells us, "ADM had grown into a global giant. Its products were found in everything from Nabisco saltines to Hellmann's mayonnaise, from Jell-O pudding to StarKist tuna."

Forget about your city's latest big robbery: ADM ripped off the entire country and nearly got away with it.

The reason it didn't -- or perhaps mostly didn't, depending on your level of cynicism -- was because of the cooperation of a peculiar ADM division president named Mark Whitacre. The FBI agents and prosecutors investigating ADM relied on Whitacre, but his secret lies and complicity began to unravel the case.

Eichenwald tells his infuriating story of corporate espionage and global conspiracy in an "All the President's Men"-style hour-by-hour re-creation. Once inside the empire of a company at ADM, the view is nothing short of chilling. The level of detail (almost every scene is narrated with direct quotes) is simply amazing.

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Eichenwald examines each grain of the story until he reaches the bottom of the silo and he's left with pure grounded meal. We're given the facial expressions of executives as they sit in hotel suites deciding on world food prices and the exact language they used when describing their own secretaries to each other while riding in a corporate limo. ("She's got big lips, looks like a black. Sensual. You know they'd fit right around.") We're given a surprisingly humanizing snapshot of ADM chairman Dwayne Andreas, the politically awesome and secretive old man who built the company into a global powerhouse only to see his own son sent to prison for price fixing.

Price fixing and corporate fraud don't exactly guarantee a fast-paced, accessible, race car of a book. But Eichenwald pulls it off by getting in the skin of his diverse characters, from dedicated FBI men conflicted by their hometown assignments to mid-tier corporate executives caught in a culture of law-breaking and easy money.

Perhaps inevitably, if Eichenwald's linear, no-nonsense telling of the ADM spectacle is the book's strength, it also is responsible for the one area where the book proves somewhat frustrating. By refusing to depart from the straightforward narrative, Eichenwald gives up opportunities for analysis and pursuing subplots.

The most central and most fascinating character is Whitacre, the turncoat witness for the feds and a man made maniacal by grandiose ambition and mental disease. How was it that seasoned FBI agents missed the essence of Whitacre's character early on? How much did ADM's financial contributions to influential politicians protect the company from harsh decisions? Finally, after the unrelenting portrait of a company corrupt to its core, can it ever recover from the shame of this scandal and turn to ethical business practices?

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These are big questions, but in the context of Eichenwald's near masterpiece of a work, they are more quibbles than complaints. "This is a book about the malleable nature of truth," Eichenwald writes in the book's afterword. Some writers (Janet Malcolm is an example) show how truth's elusiveness necessarily limits the practice of journalism. Eichenwald practices journalism to push that limit ever further.


Ilan Greenberg

Ilan Greenberg, a San Francisco freelance writer covering business and technology, has written for U.S. News & World Report and Newsday among other publications.

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