Two decades ago, a French book called "The American Challenge" by Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber warned that giant multinational companies from the United States were on the verge of turning Europe into an economic colony. The message sent waves of alarm across the Continent. But the scenario never materialized.
The oil crisis intervened, weakening the power of U.S. companies, and the European industries reorganized to become more competitive. Simultaneously, Japan was transforming itself into a global economic power.
A new international economic order has emerged over the last 20 years. Names such as Hyundai and Toyota are now as important to the world's car buyers as Ford and General Motors. American supermarkets abound with products from Nestle, Bayer and Perrier, among many other foreign powerhouses.
Anyone clinging to the old vision of this country as a colossus astride the international business world was awakened rudely on Oct. 19. Along with demonstrating the global nature of today's economy, the stock market crash illustrated the inability of Americans to control their financial destiny. Suddenly we had to worry that the decline in the Dow Jones Industrial Average would chase Japanese institutional investors out of the United States and drive up the interest rate on our adjustable home mortgages.
The crash and the ensuing recognition of the new economic order also provided a fortuitous publicity peg for this book by veteran business journalist Milton Moskowitz.
On the heels of the crash, Moskowitz has given us a fast-paced, breezily written glimpse inside some of the major players in this new international arena. "The Global Marketplace: 102 of the Most Influential Companies Outside America" is an invaluable guide to the foreign corporations and executives of today's business world.
It is not a polemic on the social value of multinationals or an analysis of the decline of American economic might. The book pays only passing attention to these issues in two introductory sections that provide the barest context for what's to come.
Rather, it is a handy reference book, chock full of facts and interesting anecdotes about a diverse array of foreign firms. As Moskowitz says in the introduction, "It's a road map to 102 companies headquartered outside the United States."
Moskowitz, who lives in Mill Valley, Calif., has proven an able chronicler of the U.S. corporate scene as co-author of the popular "The 100 Best Companies to Work for in America," a guide for job hunters, and "Everybody's Business," profiles of 317 influential U.S. firms.
Now he has taken on the world. Not always the biggest companies, though most of them are here. But the ones that he subjectively chose for their global reach and for what they represent about the growth of a country or a region.
The 102 companies come from 20 countries. Two-thirds are based in five nations; Japan and Britain have 19 each, followed by France (13), West Germany (10) and Italy (7). A hallmark of change: Servan-Schreiber barely mentioned Japan in his 1967 book.
"The Global Marketplace" is a jargon-free compendium of facts and stories. There are plenty of facts, gleaned from annual reports and company news releases and all the other sources available to enterprising reporters. But the readability and depth come from the insightful anecdotes that breathe life into the numbers and demonstrate how personalities and events have shaped these companies and, occasionally, the nations that spawned them.
Here is the story of Nestle, the proud Swiss giant founded in 1867 with the invention of infant formula to combat high infant-mortalilty rates. Ironically, in recent times, the company became the target of a decade-long boycott whose organizers accused it of killing babies with its Third World marketing techniques of infant formulas.
Indeed, the original title was "The World According to Nestle." But it was scrapped after the publisher worried that it did not convey sufficient meaning. The Nestle story, however, remains the title piece.
It is a fascinating tale about ingenious innovators, who invented not only infant formula but milk chocolate and instant coffee, and then grew through an acquisition and expansion policy that ignored national borders. Along the way, Nestle became the world's largest food company, the largest chocolate maker, the largest coffee roaster, and the largest infant-formula producer.
But there is more than Nestle here, and more than huge companies. There is the thoroughly modern story of the Hard Rock Cafe, scarcely a giant though dubbed by Moskowitz "the world's largest international sitdown restaurant chain." It was the brainchild of two rich American kids who were bankrolled by their parents and who ultimately split up in a bitter dispute in which they decided to build their separate Hard Rock Cafes in separate halves of the world.
More familiar, but still compelling is the chronicle of Rupert Murdoch's rise from proprietor of a threadbare newspaper in Adelaide, Australia, to baron of the world's biggest media empire, controlling 34% of the newspaper circulation in Britain and the fourth-largest television network in the United .S.
The book may strike some readers as an inch deep and a mile wide. And some notables among the international giants are missing, such as Elf Aquitane, the French oil company, and Samsung, the South Korean electronics firm. These are hollow criticisms. Moskowitz has written useful portraits of 102 of the companies reshaping the world. Along the way, he has performed a service to Americans trying to shed their myopic vision and to librarians searching for the date Nestle began making condensed buffalo milk in the Punjab district of India.