Mad Dog 21/21: King Solomon’s Mimes
June 5, 2017 Hesh Wiener
King Solomon enjoys a prominent place in the Bible and Quran; in Arabic the name is Sulayman. A son of King David, Solomon was, according to scripture, the wisest and wealthiest of the Hebrew Kings. After his reign, Israel split in two, with the smaller part governed by Solomon’s son Rehoboam, the larger part by the unrelated Jeroboam. Our greatest contemporary corporate kings resemble Solomon. While none have 700 wives and 300 concubines, their lawyers, dreaming of the prenup work, may wish they had Solomon’s connubial inclinations.
While archeologists and other scholars have not been able to put science behind all the stories of Solomon, that hasn’t kept writers delving into faith, mythology and whatever else goes into biblical commentary and embellishment from building a rich, if at times fanciful, body of literature. Solomon’s life also inspired quite a few painters and sculptors. For example, Solomon used some of his great wealth to build the first Great Temple in Jerusalem. There’s nothing left of that building, although there might be parts of its foundation on the presumed site. Nonetheless, writers and artists have suggested that the building of the Temple was extremely important to Solomon, much the way the new space ship headquarters is of monumental important to Apple even though its Solomon, Steve Jobs, is long gone.
There is no question that some perhaps many of the stories of Solomon exaggerate his gifts, however extraordinary they may have been. Some myths ascribe not merely human powers to Solomon but also supernatural gifts. Solomon, according to the most imaginative tales spanning the Abrahamic cultures, could perform magic and control mendacious spirits, even that greatest of demons, Asmodeus. Examples can be found far from scripture. One thread of Solomonic mythical cloth weaves into the Thousand and One Nights. Another, in the Quran, says Solomon could talk to birds. Yet another, in Hebrew commentaries that embellish the Torah, described in great detail the throne in Solomon’s palace; that description and other inspired some painters, including the eighteenth century German Andreas Brugger.
It’s easy to see that any business mogul that dreams of resembling Solomon has a lot to hope for. Nevertheless, the founders and leaders of today’s most lively companies don’t suffer from an excess of modesty. They might not think they are Solomon reincarnated, but they know their wealth and power is comparable to that of ancient kings. Like that of the potentates of yore, however, their power and the power of the organizations they have built might not long outlast their lives. Some will undoubtedly pass their corporate crowns to successors, but few will be able to achieve the durability of, say, an IBM, which, while currently under great strain, has nevertheless lasted more than a century.
One of the great companies of our times is Amazon, king of the online retailers and, these days, a possible contender in the brick and mortar world, too. The company’s founder and leader, Jeff Bezos, is about as rich and as clever as anyone in business. His corporation is in some ways the heir to Sears, which in turn was the heir to Woolworth. Amazon has achieved the prominence of these predecessors and perhaps, third time lucky, it may avoid the decline of its commercial forbears. Amazon has distinguished itself from other commercial giants by not only mastering the technologies that enable it to function, but also offering the fruits of its computing efforts to others. This venture into technology services has grown into an empire that is as influential in computing as its parent Amazon is in retailing, putting Amazon’s AWS at the forefront of information technology services. Amazon is also a leader in robotics for use in warehousing and distribution, and it may yet redefine automation the way it has reshaped computation, leading to the formation of a third empire for Jeff Bezos . . . and perhaps the formation of a third independent empire if Amazon divides after the tenure of Bezos, much the way the Hebrew empire split in two after Solomon.
Bezos may become far wealthier than America’s two other super tycoons, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. Gates is now largely retired from information technology and mainly occupied with charitable activities, notably his wars against diseases. Still, he hasn’t lost or relinquished his touch; he seems to get richer year after year. The technology company he founded, Microsoft, is, like Amazon, a key player in cloud computing and also, like IBM, a formidable power in the software used by enterprise information technology departments. While aging, perhaps senescent IBM is a diminishing echo of its former self, the far younger and livelier Microsoft continues to increase its presence. Microsoft has managed to survive succession, with control over its direction moving from Bill Gates to Steve Ballmer to Satya Nadella. It looks like Microsoft has become, like Amazon, an entity that can be compared to that of Solomon.
Gates’s friend and fellow philanthropist, Warren Buffett, used to be too old to put on a list of financial adventurers with the likes of Bezos, even if he seems to have the wealth and wisdom of a Solomon. That was how Buffett appeared several years ago in 2011 when, an avowed avoider of technology stocks, he began pouring billions into IBM. Since then Buffett has also bought into another tech superstar, Apple, and told shareholders in his investment company, Berkshire Hathaway, that he was unloading IBM. His walk down that path made him young again, open to fresh ideas, willing to review, even critically review, his prior decisions. Today no observer would be surprised if Buffett bought into any other Solomon’s technology company, nor would many be surprised if he favored the young and daring in tech over the well-established but decrepit. It looks like Buffett’s drink IBM was like a doppio or more from Starbucks, or maybe a gulp from the fountain of youth. Watching several billion dollars circling the drain sure concentrated Buffett’s mind.
Seekers of Solomons must mourn Steve Jobs, who would surely be on the list and possibly be a candidate for the first to be mentioned had he not succumbed to disease. His successor, Tim Cook, is underappreciated but even those who give Cook credit for all he has done have difficulty dubbing him a Solomon. That is not to say that Apple the enterprise is unworthy of inclusion in a list of Solomonic entities, only that it has a leader who is close but doesn’t quite win the cigar. Nevertheless, with a new iPhone in the wings and a services business that is rising into the stratosphere with Amazon and Microsoft operate their high clouds, it would be unwise for any commentator to fail to bring Apple into a conversation about the mighty empires of these times. To omit Apple, or to treat Tim Cook as anything less than a great business leader, would be as foolish as searching for answers without getting help from Google.
Google, whose founders have to a considerable extent turned executive power over to successors, is a juggernaut, one that these days might bear an image of the mortal Sundar Pichai rather than the immortal Krisna. Like IBM and Microsoft before it, Google is capable of running over and flattening anything in its path. To grow, it surrounded itself by a new structure it calls Alphabet, even as it emphasizes the astoundingly valuable brand Google. Google has reinvented media advertising as Amazon has reinvented retail marketing. While its life began with a conquest of searching via PCs on the Internet, its intake now comes increasingly from other, newer media, particularly the smartphone and its weaker cousin, the tablet. Home hubs, which have yet to earn a universally accepted name, could be Google’s next big manifestation, if Amazon and Apple don’t find a way to overwhelm all their rivals in that burgeoning segment. However Google’s strategy unfolds, its claim on ingenuity rivaling that of Solomon stems from its brilliant monetization of mouse clicks, fingertip taps and, more recently, spoken directives. Its vast wealth is more than enough to give it entry into the upper echelons of corporate achievement.
Far younger than Google but comparably influential among the interconnected is Facebook. This company’s founder and leader, Mark Zuckerberg, is a modern Solomon, too, one whose company’s conduct seems to be at the root of one or another controversy every week. Zuckerberg might be dreaming of a way to exit, to head for a more peaceful place than he now occupies, but for now there is no successor on deck, not even the extraordinarily gifted Sheryl Sandberg. There’s nothing wrong with Sandberg, who would be recognized as a Solomon if Zuckerberg vanished, but there is something very special about Zuckerberg, a quality that is quite hard to pin down, but one that has served him well during his rise to prominence, and which somehow distinguishes him from the nearly-there Solomon candidates.
Among the almost- or maybe-someday-Solomons is Elon Musk, an entrepreneur so inventive he has often been compared to Thomas Edison but one who is also so quirky and prone to take huge risks that it seems a bit premature to declare him a modern Solomon. His Tesla is a phenomenon, his battery business a remarkable effort and his rocket racket a, well, high flyer. Still, until events unfold a bit and things settle down, only the truly faithful could declare him an heir to the mantle of the great biblical king.
There is even less to commend Travis Kalanick, whose Uber has risen to become a household word and a very impressive business. Uber could blow up overnight, but chances are it will not only survive but become much more solid in the coming years, whether on its own or as part of an acquiring entity. Kalanick is on our list because he has succeeded in many ways despite his outrageous behavior, and may very well gain the wisdom, which he surely lacks right now, to endow his company with more decency. If he doesn’t reform, Lyft will follow that cab and the Uber mischief maker will be caught and then passed. For now, though it’s a bit too early for anyone to guess how the race will end, or even if it will ever end at all.
Just looking at that taxi dance would be enough to make an observer say, as Solomon did, “Oh, baby, just cut that out!