Reviews of Kochland by Christopher Leonard


The Secret History of Koch Industries and Corporate Power in America

by Christopher Leonard

Kochland by Christopher Leonard X
Kochland by Christopher Leonard
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2019, 704 pages

    Oct 2020, 704 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
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About this Book

Book Summary

Just as Steve Coll told the story of globalization through ExxonMobil and Andrew Ross Sorkin told the story of Wall Street excess through Too Big to Fail, Christopher Leonard's Kochland uses the extraordinary account of how one of the biggest private companies in the world grew to be that big to tell the story of modern corporate America.

The annual revenue of Koch Industries is bigger than that of Goldman Sachs, Facebook, and U.S. Steel combined. Koch is everywhere: from the fertilizers that make our food to the chemicals that make our pipes to the synthetics that make our carpets and diapers to the Wall Street trading in all these commodities. But few people know much about Koch Industries and that's because the billionaire Koch brothers want it that way.

For five decades, CEO Charles Koch has kept Koch Industries quietly operating in deepest secrecy, with a view toward very, very long-term profits. He's a genius businessman: patient with earnings, able to learn from his mistakes, determined that his employees develop a reverence for free-market ruthlessness, and a master disrupter. These strategies have made him and his brother David together richer than Bill Gates.

But there's another side to this story. If you want to understand how we killed the unions in this country, how we widened the income divide, stalled progress on climate change, and how our corporations bought the influence industry, all you have to do is read this book.

Seven years in the making, Kochland reads like a true-life thriller, with larger-than-life characters driving the battles on every page. The book tells the ambitious tale of how one private company consolidated power over half a century—and how in doing so, it helped transform capitalism into something that feels deeply alienating to many Americans today.


The Fighter

On May 18, 1981, four Wall Street bankers traveled to Wichita, Kansas. They went there to make an offer to Charles Koch, the CEO of an obscure, midsize energy company. The bankers, from Morgan Stanley, wanted to convince Koch to take his family's company public, offering shares for sale on the New York Stock Exchange. Their deal was squarely in line with the conventional wisdom of corporate America at the time. Going public was seen as a natural progression for companies like Koch Industries, offering them access to big pools of money and promising enormous paydays for the existing team of executives. All it required from the CEO was to surrender control. Morgan Stanley, in return, would collect a small fortune in fees.

Charles Koch was forty-five years old. He had run Koch Industries since he was thirty-two, when his father died suddenly. He was trim, tall, and had an athlete's build. He spoke quietly in meetings and seemed almost passive. The ...

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Offers an in-depth exploration of how CEO Charles Koch developed the enterprise from a mere 300-employee/$2.5 million venture when he joined the company in 1961 into one of the largest, wealthiest and most influential businesses on the planet...A masterpiece of non-fiction writing. Leonard takes a complex subject and distills it down enough for even those of us with no business acumen to understand and enjoy...continued

Full Review (764 words).

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(Reviewed by Kim Kovacs).

Media Reviews

New York Times - Jennifer Szalai
Telling this story as well as Kochland does is harder than it looks, and not just for the obvious reasons. Yes, Koch Industries is one of the largest privately owned companies in the world; this means it isn’t beholden to the same transparency requirements of a publicly traded company, whose shareholders expect to see the books... But there’s another reason that this narrative is impressive: Leonard doesn’t have much by way of rich narrative material to work with. Memorable stories are usually buoyed by memorable characters, but with few exceptions the Koch employees who talked to Leonard have imbibed the company culture and sound remarkably alike, reciting the same canned lines about hard work and, inevitably, “humility.” As Leonard admits in his preface, so many people “come and go” that he felt it necessary to supply a 10-page character directory at the back of the book.

The New Yorker - Jane Mayer
Kochland is important, Davies said, because it makes it clear that “you’d have a carbon tax, or something better, today, if not for the Kochs. They stopped anything from happening back when there was still time.” ... Others have chronicled the cap-and-trade fight well, but Leonard penetrates the inner sanctum of the Kochs’ lobbying machine, showing that, from the start, even when other parts of the company could have benefitted from an embrace of alternative energy, Koch Industries regarded any compromise that might reduce fossil-fuel consumption as unacceptable.

Leonard’s grasp of political details isn’t always completely firm. ... But “Kochland” is deeply and authoritatively reported, and, while it can be overly cautious in the conclusions that it draws, it marshals a huge amount of information and uses it to help solve two enduring mysteries: how the Kochs got so rich, and how they used that fortune to buy off American action on climate change.

Washington Post - Suzanne Goldenberg
In Kochland, Christopher Leonard has done an impressive job of breaking through that secrecy and getting insiders as well as outcasts to talk. As a result, Kochland is the most definitive account yet of how one of America’s richest and most powerful families amassed its fortune... An investigative reporter, Leonard largely sidesteps the question of where he stands on the Kochs’ sway over American public life. But the mountain of evidence he provides, reported in granular detail, should lead readers to draw their own conclusions.

New York Journal of Books
If you want a crash course in the evolution of postmodern capitalism over the last five decades read Kochland.

NPR - Scott Horsley
The prose is occasionally over the top. Do we really need to know about the white marble slabs between urinals in the men's room of a Senate office building? But for the most part, this is fast-paced business history. An episode about ammonia runoff at an oil refinery keeps you turning pages like a John Grisham thriller.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
A massively reported deep dive into the unparalleled corporate industrial giant Koch Industries...A landmark book.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Leonard's superb investigations and even-handed, clear-eyed reportage stand out.

The Washington Post
Impressive… Kochland is the most definitive account yet of how one of America’s richest and most powerful families amassed its fortune.

Author Blurb Jesse Eisinger, Pulitzer Prize winner and author of The Chickenshit Club
Leonard's visionary, decade-spanning, and heart-rending investigation into the Koch Empire is indispensable not just for understanding the rise of corporate power in America, but for understanding America itself. Kochland will take its place alongside Chernow's Titan and Coll's Private Empire as one of the great accounts of American capitalism.

Author Blurb Ken Auletta, New York Times bestselling author of Googled
A Robert Caro-like narrative of business and political power with a brilliant, ruthless, and fascinating monopolist at its center. Leonard devoted eight years to this gem of a book, seeking to understand the mysterious Charles Koch and the Goliath he has taken a half century to construct.

Author Blurb Steve Coll, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Private Empire
Kochland is a dazzling feat of investigative reporting and epic narrative writing, a tour de force that takes the reader deep inside the rise of a vastly powerful family corporation that has come to influence American workers, markets, elections, and the very ideas debated in our public square. Leonard's work is fair and meticulous, even as it reveals the Kochs as industrial Citizens Kane of our time.

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Beyond the Book

Charles Koch and Market-Based Management

Koch logo Charles Koch, the driving force behind Koch Industries and heavily quoted in Christopher Leonard's book Kochland, developed a philosophy he dubbed "Market-Based Management" (MBM). Koch considers these principles a guide to all of life and not just a business strategy. For this reason, all his employees are required to not only memorize MBM's principles but also completely internalize them and apply them to all they do, on and off the job. According to Leonard, anyone who isn't completely on-board with Koch's vision (a.k.a. a "true believer") isn't employed by the company for long.

Koch's way of thinking has roots in his childhood. According to Leonard, his father Fred Koch (the founder of the company) "impressed upon his boys the ...

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