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Corporate Canaries Book cover by AHS class of 1960 alum and author Gary Edwin Sutton Gary Sutton portrait Moon in Grundy Center Author AHS class of 1960 Gary Edwin Sutton portrait AHS 1960 Alum and Author

July 28, 2005

Corporate Canaries Avoid Business Disasters with a Coal Miner's Secrets
by Author Gary E. Sutton AHS 1960

Available now from Amazon.com

Book Review

Soundview Executive Book Summaries

"Corporate Canaries Avoid Business Disasters with a Coal Miner's Secrets by Gary E. Sutton was published October 2005 by Nelson Business and is under consideration by Soundview Executive Book Summaries as one of the 30 best business books of the year."

"Corporate Canaries" by Gary E. Sutton is a book about corporate turnarounds that engages its readers in two effective ways: it's built around stories and it has a killer metaphor.

The canary in the coal mine may be familiar to some of you, but what better metaphor can you find for "danger signal"? Because seeping toxic gas that could signal an impeding explosion would kill little birds before it affected men, coal mining companies would put cages of chirping canaries in the tunnels. When the canaries stopped singing and keeled over, you knew you better get out of the tunnel as fast as you could.

The stories in Corporate Canaries are told by Gary Sutton's grandfather, an Irish immigrant who worked in the coal mines of Kentucky. Each of the five principle chapters of the book is dedicated to a different story about “Grandpa.” Each of Grandpa's stories then leads to a parallel business lesson about avoiding the mistake that could knock your company off its perch.

Gary E. Sutton knows about saving ailing businesses. As a serial turnaround CEO, Sutton built a successful career based on the simple notion that if you're going to fix a wobbly company, you have to find out what killed the bird — in other words, what did the previous owners and managers do that got the company into trouble.

One chapter begins with Grandpa's story of a mine owner who believed that blasting his way through the earth indiscriminately, rather than paying attention to tell-tale signs of coal veins in the walls, was the way to mine more coal. He furiously used more dynamite and dug more earth and rock out of the ground than his competitors. His competitors, however, continued to mine more coal.

The business lesson is that companies often make the attempt to “outgrow losses.” These companies, write Sutton, don't realize that more revenues does not necessarily mean more profits — a mistake that even a giant such as Time-Life/Warner has made. Sutton urges companies to fix profits first, and then add business. Acquiring more unprofitable customers and more unprofitable products is like blasting more unprofitable holes in the ground: much more work, but the bottom line is still hurting.

Other lessons in Sutton's book include: debt's a killer; fools fly blind; any decision beats no decision; and markets grow and markets die.

At the end of the book, Sutton reveals that Grandpa is actually a composite figure based on both of his grandfathers and a coal-mining family he knew. Corporate Canaries thus gets uncomfortably close to parable territory, but at least the lessons in the book are insightful, the author has a long and successful track record of turning around companies (he is not, in his own words, “an overpaid consultant who's never met a payroll or some tenured professor with untested theories”), and there are no talking animals!

In Memory of Gary Edwin Sutton

July 13, 1942 - July 12, 2015

Gary E. Sutton Obituary

Gary Edwin Sutton was a troublemaker and a man full of integrity, class clown and a brilliant businessman, ruthless when crossed and a generous advisor to everyone who leaned on him, a risk-taking adventurer and a mushy family man, a C student and a lifelong learner, a healthy fitness buff and a wine lover, a small town farm boy and a big city sophisticate. In short, Gary was truly one of a kind and this world will never know another like him.

Gary was born to Kay and Gene Sutton in Montezuma, Iowa, on July 13, 1942. His childhood was bucolic and involved enough shenanigans that he could entertain a crowd for hours with old stories. He held several interesting jobs during high school and college, including male model, working at a nuclear cyclotron, and driving cross country as the advance public relations man for race cars and a hot air balloon.

A Journalism major at Iowa State University, Gary spent more time with his fraternity brothers at Sigma Phi Epsilon than he did in class (in fact, he barely graduated). Sophomore year, he had a blind date with Nancy Ruth Winberg where they played drinking games. The two were married on September 19, 1964.

Gary’s career started with writing ad copy for Lennox furnaces and air conditioners. He worked his way up the career ladder with stops at Learjet, Honeywell (where he helped invent autofocus), Fisher Price Toys, and a variety of printing, burglar alarm and technology companies where he was CEO. The last 20 years of Gary’s career were spent as a turnaround artist, where he would make unprofitable companies successful. He never failed to turn a company around.

Along the way, Gary exaggerated his graduate studies, saying he “slipped through Harvard Business thanks to their OPM program, allowing some ivy to rub off on lesser intellects,” and that he took graduate studies at Oxford “without the tiniest shred of distinction.”

Always a writer at heart, Gary authored numerous business and fiction books, some of which were actually published by legitimate publishing houses (all are available on Amazon, but buyer beware!). He also ran many columns and Op-Ed pieces in publications ranging from the local fish wrapper to the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. One column helped a judge decide to overturn a jury verdict. Another caused a CIA operative to show up on his doorstop. Death threats and nasty letters to the editor followed several pieces. At least that’s what he claimed – Gary was never one to let the truth get in the way of a good story.

Gary was the busiest “retired” person ever known. In addition to his writing, he served on several boards, was an inventor holding multiple patents, spoke publicly, and generously gave of his time to small business owners.

In addition to his wife of 50 years, Nancy, Gary’s true pride and joy were his children and grandchildren. Daughter Stacy of Atlanta is the mother of granddaughters Cody (20) and Katy (17). Daughter Lindsay of Moraga, California is the mother of grandsons Ryan (16) and Sam (15). Gary regaled his descendants with stupid magic tricks, told the same jokes over and over, acted in an embarrassing fashion whenever possible, and consistently served as an inspiring and adored role model.

Beloved by everyone, Gary left us too soon, due to an aortic aneurysm that the doctors thought was small enough to not be a danger. He died one day shy of his 73rd birthday, on July 12, 2015. He will be missed terribly, and never, ever forgotten.

Despite loving being the center of attention, Gary did not want to have a funeral or memorial service. We are debating about looking skyward, saying “You are not the boss of us!” and going against his wishes, but plans are still to be determined. Gary was suspicious of most charities, so there’s no need to make a donation in his name. If you wish to honor him, please spend time with your precious families and realize that you may not have as many tomorrows as you’d like.

P.S. A casual, tropical themed open house to celebrate Gary's life will be held on Saturday, September 19, 2015, 4 - 7 pm at the La Jolla Alta Clubhouse, 1570 Alta La Jolla Dr. La Jolla, CA 92037.

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