Revisited: ‘The Class The Dollars Fell On’

When they graduated from the Harvard Business School, they took jobs that paid less than $4,000 a year. Yet, every member of the class had in his possession a piece of paper that was rare and exotic: an MBA.

In the spring of 1949, when there were only 3,000 people in the world with MBA degrees, these 653 graduates entered a business world that was filled with promise and opportunity. In due time, through hard work, perseverance and luck, the ‘49ers would not only grasp those opportunities. They would master them, becoming the most successful MBA class in the history of business.

Fortune magazine initially brought notice to the highly accomplished class in a 1974 article on the 25th anniversary of their graduation. By then, the power and influence achieved by its members was nothing less than extraordinary: nearly half of the class had already climbed to the titles of chairman, CEO or chief operating officer. One in five had become millionaires or more.

Many of the men have since passed away, including former Securities & Exchange Chairman John Shad and former Xerox CEO Peter McCollough. Yet, many more are remain alive and vibrant: Johnson & Johnson’s James Burke is now 87; Bloomingdale’s Marvin Traub is now 86, and so is Capital Cities-ABC’s Thomas Murphy and Lester Crown, the former head of General Dynamics whose family holdings include Maytag, Hilton Hotels, New York’s Rockefeller Center and Chicago’s pro basketball team, the Chicago Bulls.

This month, one of two books that chronicled the class’ impact on business and post-war America, is being republished. The Big Time: The Harvard Business School’s Most Successful Class & How It Shaped America, originally published in 1986, was written by Laurence Shames, then a young writer at Esquire who had never tackled a book project before.

The Big Time, recalls Shames, sold much better than he thought it would and garnered a good deal more attention than he expected. The book was excerpted in both Esquire and Playboy. It was favorably reviewed in The New York Times and even made Business Week’s ten-best list for the year.

In retrospect, believes Shames, “many readers were drawn to it in hopes of absorbing at least some of the strong magic of a B-School education; others picked it up for a vicarious glimpse into the glamour of the boardroom and the corner office.”

His portrayal of the class was largely flattering. Shames, then ethics columnist for Esquire, was taken by their passion, enthusiasm, and sense of mission. They profoundly believed in what some would quaintly regard today as traditional business virtues—hard work, sacrifice, loyalty, honesty and humility.

In offering The Big Time to a new audience, says Shames, “his hope is not merely to present a portrait of what seems, increasingly, a faraway time, but to promote a deeper and more nuanced understanding of our own.”

Poets&Quants spoke with the author, who has since published 20 books and hundreds of magazine articles and essays, by telephone from his home in Ojai, California.

Author Laurence Shames

Is a book published in 1986 about a Harvard Business School class in 1949 at all relevant to an audience in 2012?

I think so. I really tended to like these guys. It was a fascinating historical moment. About three quarters of the men in the class—and it was all men and all white men—had served in the war. They had this amazing wealth of real life experiences. They were a little bit older. They didn’t necessarily come from fancy undergraduate backgrounds. They had a sense of life and death. And they had a perspective of how important business was and wasn’t. They saw business in the context of leading a meaningful life and doing something worthwhile.

A big part of the reason I decided to make this book available again is that I feel that as a nation, we don’t have as much of a sense of mission. We don’t have a sense of being a part of something larger than ourselves. One of the things I admired, respected and learned from the ‘49ers is that they did have a sense of being part of something that was larger than themselves.

It was the American moment. America had just won the war. America was preeminent economically and becoming more so. And these guys really believed in the country and in our economy in their bones. It was not a phony stance. Without question, they wanted to make a lot of money. If they didn’t, they would have picked different schools. But it wasn’t only about making money. It was about participating and contributing to this idea of an expanding America. I found that very attractive and very moving. I like to think there is something of value today for younger people who are in business schools now or who are hoping to go to business school.

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