Revisiting Harvard's most successful MBA class

March 26, 2012: 9:39 AM ET

The power of Harvard B-school's class of 1949 was nothing less than extraordinary. We talk with author Laurence Shames, who told the story of this historic class.

Interview by John A. Byrne, contributor

(Poets&Quants) -- 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 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 of its members were 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 (XRX) CEO Peter McCollough. Yet, many more are still alive and vibrant: Johnson & Johnson's (JNJ) 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 (GD), whose family holdings include Maytag, Hilton Hotels, New York's Rockefeller Center, and 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 10-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.

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.

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.

Do you feel that today's generation of MBA students are without that larger purpose in life?

I'm sure there are young people in business schools who do have that sense of mission. But I don't think it is as widespread as it was.

I do think that we live in difficult economic times and young people today haven't really known that expansive sense of growth and opportunity. There is more pressure to think 'I better get mine while I can.' I don't think that is a long-term sustainable strategy.

So how much did luck play into the class of 1949's success?

Without question, they were lucky in their timing. As of 1949, there were only 50,000 MBAs in the entire country. That is MBAs of any age from any school. In 1985, which is when I was writing the book, 60,000 MBAs graduated that year alone. Like everything else, things have gotten so much more cluttered.

Yes, these guys were lucky to emerge in a time when an MBA was still very exotic. There were fewer than 100 schools in the whole country giving MBAs then. Now there is close to a thousand.

But they also worked their tails off. They didn't expect anything to be handed to them. They always asked for more work, not less. They were a very competitive, driven group. But, again, not only for their own monetary gains. They wanted to excel. They wanted to be leaders.

At the time you wrote this book, you knew nothing about business and had never written about management or business education. How did you come up with the idea to write about a class of MBAs?

It had always been my ambition to start writing books, and I was trying for months to come up with a book idea that would interest both me and a publisher. One day, completely out of the blue, an editor at Harper & Row, Harriet Rubin, cold called me. She had already brought this idea to the editorial board and they loved it. Harriet said. 'We are looking for a writer. Do you want to do it?'

I couldn't believe it. I was trying to come up with an idea and then an editor I had never met who, fortunately for me, was a fan of my Esquire stuff said, 'This is ready to go. Sign on the dotted line if you want to do this book.'

I didn't fancy myself a business expert. I didn't then and I don't now. I don't have an Ivy League background. I am liberal and a little bit skeptical of the powers that be. I made all those disclaimers in case she wanted a Harvard MBA to write the book and she said, "That's exactly why you should write it."

Were they initially receptive to the idea of having a book written about them?

At the start, I thought, 'I'm a young journalist.' I didn't have a lot of credentials at the time, 'and these guys are millionaire chairmen and CEOs. Why would they make time to talk to me?'

What I found is that, first of all, they were a very, very close-knit group. So once I had met and earned the trust of the first couple of guys, I was pleasantly surprised that I could get to speak to everyone. The other thing I assumed was that, 'Oh my God, these guys are such important people they must be very busy.' But, of course, by the time you get to become chairman of the board, you have this magnificent corner office and this big desk with one piece of paper on it.

I will say that these guys were very accustomed to dealing with the business press and the business press really treated them with kid gloves. The Fortune articles really were hagiographic. They didn't bring any kind of critical objectivity. I had nothing against the class, but nor did I go in thinking I was dealing with gods.

In your reporting, did you discover members of the class who weren't quite as successful?

I did. One of the men I was fondest of as a person and who was really kind to me and was key to providing access to others was a guy named Stanley Greenfield. He was kind of the class cheerleader and social director and head of the reunion committee. He had a very modest career in media. When I met him, he was working out of a dingy little office in New York City. This is how long ago it was: He had the idea of doing a phone book for fax numbers because the fax was relatively new. He thought he was going to make his fortune creating a fax directory. I make it clear that he was not a raving success in the business world. I hope I didn't hurt his feelings.

But again, I think if we learn nothing else in life, we learn that there is no such thing as a sure thing. And even a Harvard MBA does not guarantee you a brilliant, successful career in business.

The guys I most admired were the self-made men…. There was a guy named Ned Dewey who ended up being a major investment guy. He started working for Gulf Oil. Well, he started working at a gas station in Harlem, Harvard MBA or no Harvard MBA.

Wasn't Dewey the member of the class who famously told you that he would just as soon sleep with a python than hire an MBA who, he said, would suck your Rolodex out of you?

Yes, that was Ned. He was a very gruff guy. When the '49ers graduated, I think there were 653 graduates. Only six guys went to Wall Street --less than one percent of the class. It just wasn't considered where the action was or considered a place where you could make a meaningful difference.

How conscious were the men that there were no women in the class? Did they believe that was unfair and wrong?

Some of the guys were very old fashioned, men's club guys and thought this is a man's club. But I think, particularly later in their lives, most of the men thought, "Well, of course it was unfair." Some of the men had daughters who wanted to go to Harvard for an MBA.

Similarly, there were no blacks in the class. And, certainly, by the time I was writing the book, everybody felt there should be blacks in the school. Everybody felt there should be more international kids, too.

I remember reading and very much enjoying the book when it first came out in 1986. I picked it up thinking it could be just an entertaining read, but found it had more depth and meaning than I thought possible.

I wanted to do more than just tell entertaining stories about a bunch of rich guys.  I wanted to say something. How did the '49ers define personal success? What did they see as the proper balance between ambition and responsibility? If business was a game, what were the implications of playing it the way it was played in mid-twentieth century America? These were the sorts of questions I was trying to address in The Big Time, and I believe they are even more pressing now than on the day of the book's original appearance.

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About This Author
John A. Byrne
John A. Byrne
Contributor , Fortune

John A. Byrne is chairman and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media Inc., a digital media startup that is launching a network of websites for the global business community, including PoetsandQuants.com, a website for analysis, news, and features on prestige MBAs and the best business education in the world. Byrne was until recently executive editor and editor-in-chief of BusinessWeek.com. Byrne is the author or co-author of eight books on business, leadership, and management, including two national bestsellers.

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