So would say Eamon Javers, the author of Broker, Trader, Lawyer, Spy, about corporate espionage. This was a pretty fun read. First, Javers exposes readers to one of the seedy underbellies of corporate America. Spying. Through interviews with scores of corporate spies, Javers explains the many ways corporations engage in some of the same behavior traditionally reserved for foreign and domestic governmental agencies. The book also does a cursory job of reviewing corporate spying, stealing, and trickery throughout the 20th century, which is good for everyday readers. Then he goes into some great stories about feuds between Nestle and Mars, about stock analysts who use psychoanalysts to determine if executives are lying on conference calls, and about the firms who “represent” companies overseas.
I’m not naive here. I know that governments, corporations, and individuals do things that are illegal or at best unethical. It happens all the time. (Read my forthcoming recap of The Big Short). But I can be cynical, so I think maybe sometimes I expect things that I actually shouldn’t. When a big investor spends millions to analyze the vocal rhythms of a CEO doing an earnings call, that big investor is rigging the game. And when Mars and Nestle can spend millions to steal info from one another or to encourage government to regulate the other, then they are tilting the pinball machine. It’s cheating, plain and simple. It may be part of who we are, but it is still cheating. It is people who have unlimited money, trying to make more, and using underhanded techniques to do it.
A book like this can fuel populism. It proves that left unchecked, companies do not usually self-regulate to the level that Joe Q. Public expects them too. It shows that some corporations have as many as or more resources than some governments. And that even in this age of free information, there are still secrets out there only some can get access to.
I’m concerned that Javers, by all accounts a good writer and journalist, does not have the entire picture. Do I really expect, after reading this book, that he is getting 100% of the story? Hell no. More like 60%. So what’s left? The stuff that would probably make my skin crawl. I wish he had collaborated with a former spy turned whistleblower. That would knock my socks off.
I completely agree with Javers’ conclusion that this industry needs more sunlight. These are uncharted waters, and the media (what’s left of it) and places like the SEC would be wise to spend a little more time looking into these spying outfits and who uses them. This kind of stuff isn’t covered in your generic corporate ethics policy either. Ultimately, companies should begin to think about what kind of behavior they want to disallow within their own four walls.
In the same vein, the Wall Street Journal ran a piece on how some grocery companies have been funding opposition efforts to new Walmart developments in areas where the grocery companies are already established. When you read the article, it seems that some of it is driven by the publicity aims of the owner of the company that helped the grocery companies interfere with competition. Stupidly, the president of that company seems to have diarrhea of the mouth (and probably is experiencing a draught of new clients who expect discretion in such matters.) While I don’t know if the WSJ sought out this story or if they were handed it, I give them credit for putting it on the front pages. My guess is that there are other stories where this one came from. They just might not all be that easy to find. Maybe Javers’ book will help encourage more writing like this.