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What we can learn from the best and worst fictional business characters

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Today is World Book Day – a celebration of books, authors, illustrators and the general joy of sitting down in an armchair and reading the written word.

Books can entertain, shock, surprise and make us feel and think deeply about people and places in both familiar and unfamiliar surroundings.

Think of how Ernest Hemmingway deals with the feelings of loss at the end of A Farewell to Arms, the struggles and traps of American poverty in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and the complexities of love in Jane Austen’s Emma and Pride and Prejudice.

We can also learn lessons about the world of finance through some of the great fictional business characters. Here we list five businessmen and entrepreneurs whose struggles on the page can help your company prosper in real life.

(1) Ebenezer Scrooge from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol

It’s never quite clear what kind of company Scrooge and his late partner Jacob Marley run. It appears to be a money-lending business, perhaps an early Wonga.

It is clearly successful – we see Scrooge mingling with well-dressed City types – but it lacks heart and humanity. The sole employee, clerk Bob Cratchit, is poorly paid and works long hours.

Scrooge has been consumed by greed. He sees little worth in anything else including families and friends and sees little point in redistributing wealth to London’s poor. “If they would rather die they had better do it and decrease the surplus population,” he said.

He has forgotten that there is a world outside his business.

Later, when visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past, he is taken back to a party held by his old employer, Fezziwig. He is also successful but has retained his humanity and respect for his employees. They are happy, dancing away – Scrooge included. “Was there ever such an employer?” he recalled.

Lessons: The dangers of greed and the threat of losing friends, families and humanity by being too focused on building your business. Showing respect and having an emotional connection with your employees both through a good wage and creating a happy working environment.

(2) Arthur Birling from JB Priestley’s An Inspector Calls

Birling is a North Midlands manufacturer. It is 1912 and the business is doing well. He is hosting a dinner at his large suburban home – lots of cigar boxes and champagne glasses.

Birling also fails to see that his business is part of a wider community and has social responsibilities. During the dinner he said: “A man has to make his own way…but the way some of these cranks talk and write now, you’d think everybody has to look after everybody else, as if we were all mixed up together like bees in a hive.”

He is also ignorant of the future placing too much faith in the march of economic prosperity and the progress of modern technology. He says the Titanic is “ absolutely unsinkable”, there will be no World War and that by 1940 there will be “peace and prosperity and rapid progress everywhere ”.

As a modern audience we know how badly wrong his predictions were.

Lessons: Understanding that your business does have a responsibility to wider society and that it can play a part in improving a local community. Not putting too much faith in technology saving or improving mankind or commercialising technical or scientific breakthroughs before they are fully understood. Properly planning and identifying future economic, political or social trends which could affect your business. Show humility as a chief executive – not be consumed by ego or bluster.

(3) Willy Wonka from Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Willy is a complex soul. His business is booming but it is very secretive. It has a factory in the middle of a town but no locals work there – they were fired because of industrial espionage!

Willy is an entrepreneurial innovator – think of his creations such as the ‘Everlasting Gobstopper’ and ‘Wonkavision’ – coming up with great ideas which keep customers loyal and eager for more.

He is also a marketing genius – win a visit to his secretive factory by finding one of five golden tickets in his chocolate bars. Just look at the children rushing into shops to snap up the bars. Even Charlie Bucket, poor and starving, buys two bars but with no success. Then he finds a coin half-covered in the snow, buys another bar and there he finds the golden ticket.

Because of failings such as greed and selfishness, four of the winners fail to complete the factory tour. Only Charlie is left and he is rewarded for his honesty and integrity by being appointed Willy’s successor.

Lessons: Product innovation will keep sales surging and clever marketing and promotional tools will build interest. Perhaps putting a succession plan in place which does not rely on organising a trip around your factory and a boy ending up in a chocolate river may be easier. Also Willy has grown very suspicious both of his former employees and customers – he shouldn’t have such an idealised vision of them and learn to understand that they will make mistakes. You can’t control everything – you must learn to delegate and trust your staff.

(4) Jay Gatsby from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby 

Gatsby is an entrepreneur but has made his money through dubious means – mainly bootlegged liquor. He is flamboyant, has an understanding of his own “personal brand” and markets it well. He is a great networker hosting lavish parties for the great and good of the US.

But again he fails to understand the problems of the wider world outside of his business and the threat of the Great Depression just around the corner. He is consumed by the creation of his company and wealth and it is all driven by his dream of reclaiming a lost love.

He is isolated and lonely and has sacrificed everything for a goal he will not reach.

Lessons: To be successful it helps for an entrepreneur to set goals. They will help motivate them through the difficult times. But never let those goals become too encompassing. There is a world and a life outside of your business and you can never forget that. Even if you fail to meet your goals don’t feel like you have failed. Pick yourself up and try again.

(5) Idgie Threadgoode from Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café

Idgie and best friend Ruth Jamison run a café in Whistle Stop, Alabama during the Great Depression.

The café becomes the centre of the community. It serves hobos passing through the town and black customers. It is a good, warm place, hard-working and honest.

Lessons: As a business it is aware of its social responsibilities and knows it can use its power to break down barriers such as racism. It shows the value of treating your customers well and how word of mouth can build your business. The hobos tell others about the kind employers and many flock to it from around the country.

It is also a positive message for wannabe female entrepreneurs – not to listen to doubters and to believe in yourself and your plans.

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