Book Review: The Smartest Guys in the Room by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind

Title: The Smartest Guys in the Room

Author: Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind

Blurb: Today, Enron is the biggest business story of our time, and Fortune senior writers Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind are the new Woodward and Bernstein.

Remarkably, it was just two years ago that Enron was thought to epitomize a great New Economy company, with its skyrocketing profits and share price. But that was before Fortune published an article by McLean that asked a seemingly innocent question: How exactly does Enron make money? From that point on, Enron’s house of cards began to crumble. Now, McLean and Elkind have investigated much deeper, to offer the definitive book about the Enron scandal and the fascinating people behind it.

Meticulously researched and character driven, Smartest Guys in the Room takes the reader deep into Enron’s past—and behind the closed doors of private meetings. Drawing on a wide range of unique sources, the book follows Enron’s rise from obscurity to the top of the business world to its disastrous demise. It reveals as never before major characters such as Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling, and Andy Fastow, as well as lesser known players like Cliff Baxter and Rebecca Mark. Smartest Guys in the Room is a story of greed, arrogance, and deceit—a microcosm of all that is wrong with American business today. Above all, it’s a fascinating human drama that will prove to be the authoritative account of the Enron scandal.

My Thoughts

I don’t read books about business very often, but I am a fan of historical nonfiction, and while the Enron scandal was relatively recent, it’s already become a very important part of the history of big business in the United States.

The Smartest Guys in the Room provides a very thorough history of how, between its meteoric rise in the 80s/90s to its disastrous collapse in the early 2000s, Enron transformed from a simple natural gas and oil company into a monstrous machine of speculative trading that led to one of the greatest accounting scandals in history.

Written in a very approachable narrative style, the book digs deep into the details about the development and downfalls of Enron’s various business divisions over the years, the toxic office culture that drove its astounding number of poor (and often illegal) business decisions, and the life and times of the key players whose greed and lies ultimately brought down the company they’d spent decades priding themselves in building.

To further enrich the story, the authors take the time to explain the complex financing arrangements that got the company into big trouble in a way that even people with zero accounting/finance knowledge can easily understand. They also arrange the major events over the course of the company’s life into a standard narrative structure that makes the “plot” easy to follow and compelling to read.

Even if you have little interest in business topics, The Smartest Guys in the Room is an excellent and engaging book about a very important part of recent business history in the United States. I enjoyed it more than a lot of the novels I’ve read this year, and I highly recommend it.

Rating: 4.5/5

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