Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, January 15, 2018
The musical “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” ran on Broadway from October 1961 to March 1965 — a total of 1,417 performances. The truth is we are always trying (even when we say we aren’t really trying) so I decided to go back a few centuries to look for some early practitioners of that skill.
Meet Benedetto Cotrugli, a 15th-century Italian rug merchant, who wrote a modest tome, “The Book of the Art of Trade,” which seems to embody some principles that are still deeply relevant today. Translated by Harvard historian and associate professor Sophus Reinert, this is the first English translation.
Cotrugli advised his peers that in order to succeed in business, “leaders need to be charitable, ethical and treat people fairly, be modest, look for the right qualities in a wife and retire at 50, when his blood calms down and his intelligence dims and his memory becomes less quick, so that he risks committing many errors in his business.”
Six hundred years ago, the early concepts of capitalism and corporate social responsibility were already being explored. Cotrugli came to the merchant business reluctantly. He was an intellect, but he felt that “the necessary activity, known as commerce/business, had fallen into the hands of undisciplined and uncouth people, who carry on without moderation or orderliness, ignoring and perverting the law.”
Stop. Please re-read the above paragraph. Then send it to your friends on Wall Street or Main Street.
Cotrugli took a holistic approach to this dilemma, laying out principles of trade, religion, civic engagement, modesty, fairness and finally wife selection. (I’m not going there, let it suffice that I got very lucky). He also opined on what to avoid — “chess, board games, dice, fencing, musical instruments, dancing, hunting and fishing.” (As I am an avid fly fisherman, my suggestion is to take some of Cotrugli’s axioms with a grain of salt.)
What is impressive, though, is his deep concern for others who are less fortunate. “The merchant must be generous in extending his hand to the poor and in giving alms out of his own property,” he wrote. We just finished Christmas, so maybe a little carry-over here is appropriate. We can’t just do it a couple of days a year.
Here is a big one. “Merchants should not be involved in politics or the courts, because these are perilous areas.” I think he could have mentioned this in November 2016.
But Cotrugli also knows the scales can be tipped unfairly, and he says, “the shrewdness of the merchant, or his cunning, must be employed in moderation.” However, Cotrugli is no roll-over artist. He also says that the merchant should not allow himself “to be got better of by deceit and falsity.”
Cotrugli saw the merchant as a noble figure, literate, educated and cultivated. At the same time, the art of the trade requires a strong technical base. Today, this would include computer skills, finance, marketing and accounting etc. He also spoke about the importance of the location of the operation and taking on excessive debt, and he supported mentoring the young merchant as he learns his trade.
Charging interest back then was illegal and so credit was secured with insurance premiums that skirted the usury laws. But in the matter of nonperforming loans, Cotrugli is very clear, “after one year, the amount due should be cut in half, and written off entirely after two,” because for the merchant “losing time and losing money are the same thing.” Are you listening, head of the government student loan program, and all the debt collection industries that have sprung up around it? Maybe also send that sentence to the credit card industry.
This guy Benedetto Cotrugli is rather unique — not only for his time back then, but clearly relevant today (although he didn’t see the eventual rise and power of women). But Benny and I part company when he gets to retirement. Even factoring in life expectancy increases, Cotrugli supports getting off the stage pretty early — by 50, “a man has a good name, possessions, he has made his pile, married off his children — what more does he want.”
I will tell you what he wants — to stay relevant, to continue to wage war, to play more hands, to beat down more doors and walls and make a difference in the grand game of life.
Rule No. 543: I’m going out kicking and screaming.