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by Alfred A. Marcus

Wharton School Publishing © 2006, 396 pages, $27.99 (ISBN 0-13-145132-4).

Secrets of Long-Term Business Success and Failure

After studying the performance metrics of the 1,000 largest U.S. corporations, strategy expert Alfred A. Marcus has turned up the top 3.2 percent of the companies that have outperformed their industries for an entire decade, from 1992 to 2002. In Big Winners and Big Losers, Marcus shows how these firms create the business strategies that drive their success. He also describes the characteristics of the companies that failed to outperform their industries and offers advice that other firms can use to avoid joining these losers at the bottom of the heap.

What makes a firm a winner? Marcus writes, “Big winners base their success on being in sweet spots and having focus, discipline and agility.” Likewise, he adds, big losers fail because they are in “sour spots. They have the traits of diffuseness, ineptitude and rigidity.”

To get the information that led to the conclusions he reaches in Big Winners and Big Losers, Marcus enlisted the help of more than 500 managers with more than seven years experience who worked for more than 35 multinational companies, including Target, Best Buy, American Express, Deloitte Touche, Unisys and United Health. The reports written by these managers were used to create the initial material from which Marcus extracted the insights he develops and reveals.

Winning and Losing

In the first part of Big Winners and Big Losers, Marcus explains why some firms continuously win and others regularly lose. He also describes the methodology he used to determine which companies in his study were winners and losers.

The second part of Big Winners and Big Losers provides an in-depth analysis of the winners, including descriptions of the sweet spots they occupied and the ways in which they demonstrated the agility to move into these spots, the discipline to protect these spots, and the focus to exploit and extend these spots.

In the third part of his book, Marcus describes the sour spots that the losers found themselves in, and points out how they were too rigid to move out of these spots, too inept at defending the positions they found themselves in, and unable to extend and exploit them. He also explores two companies that successfully created turnarounds and offers a list of best practices companies can use to avoid the mistakes of the losers.

Sweet Spots

Marcus writes that a sweet spot that a big winner worked to create is a noticeably better position than the position of the company’s competitors. This is a position that is “virtually uncontested,” he adds.

You know you are in a sweet spot when:

• You stay close to your customers.

• You are intimate in your understanding of their needs.

• You cater to groups of customers whose desires you know well and with whom you have developed trusting relationships.

• You build your business around a clear value proposition for the customer groups you know well.

Regularly delivering more value to your customers than your competitors is the key to being in a sweet spot, Marcus explains.

The Market for Painkillers

One example of the search for a sweet spot is the hunt for an effective, gentle pain reliever. At one time, Excedrin, Anacin and Bufferin were in a high-effectiveness, low-gentleness category. All three pain relievers were better than aspirin, but Tylenol held the gentleness space to itself, which became the source of Tylenol’s strength. Marcus explains, “If someone were to find the truly highly effective, extremely gentle pain reliever, this person would be in a sweet spot, a truly unassailable position until it could be matched by a competitor.”

Marcus identifies nine big winners that keep on winning. These include Dreyer’s, Forest Labs, Ball, Family Dollar and Activision. After detailing what they did right to consistently stay in the sweet spot, he describes how other companies can do the same things that kept these companies thriving. Alternatively, he offers the tales of nine losers, including Snap-On, Goodyear and The Gap, to describe what others can do to avoid the sour spots these companies found themselves trapped within. ~

Why We Like ThIs Book

By weeding out the rare winners and losers from the 1,000 largest firms, and identifying what they did right and wrong in their pursuit of competitive advantage, Marcus has performed a great service for all companies both large and small. With numerous recommendations to go with his extensive research, he offers a strong base on which others can grow and prosper. ~

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