I’ve just learned that the distinguished business historian Chris Kobrak has died. I’ve known Chris from conferences for a number of years and over the course of the last eighteen months I got to know him quite well. I deeply respected Chris as a human being and a scholar and proximity to him caused me to be a better person by being more international, more financially literate, more generous with money, and to pay more attention to ethics. When I say pay attention to ethics, I do not mean to suggest that I was unethical before I met Chris. Rather, I mean that I am more conscious of ethical issues when engaged in writing and thinking about business history and in thinking university teaching and life more generally.
To understand why Chris was an important figure in the global business history community, we need to consider his family background and career. Chris’s family history is connected to some of the great events of the twentieth century. His father, who was a German Jew, escaped Germany at the last possible moment, arriving in the United States in the late 1930s, at a time when the Western democracies were slamming their gates shut to such refugees. Chris’s father was one of the lucky people who was able to escape from the Nazis. Chris’s mother was from Ireland and he was brought up near New York, the great melting pot. Although Chris’s father had every reason to hate Germany, he encouraged his son to learn German and to become familiar with German culture. This knowledge would later allowed Chris to write so perceptively about German business history. Chris also maintained his connections with Ireland and was, in my estimate, unusually well informed about Irish affairs for a non-Irish person.
Chris began his doctoral studies in history at Columbia University in the late 1970s, working under Volker Berghahn on a topic in German business history. Halfway through his PhD, he decided to quit and go into private industry to make some money. At the time, one of his contemporaries in the PhD program correctly predicted that he would return to academe and the study of business history after he had spent some time working in an actual business. Chris had a successful career in business that included a stint running the Japanese subsidiary of a US company in the late 1980s, at the height of the bubble. He arrived in Tokyo with zero knowledge of Japanese but at the end of his time there he was fluent enough to run a board meeting. After retiring from business, his personal life brought him to Paris. Despite knowing no French on his arrival, he quickly mastered the language, putting your Canadian author to shame through this witty banter and repartee with Parisian waiters and waitresses. He began teaching business at ESCP, which is one of the world’s older business schools. Since ESCP wanted its faculty to have or to acquire PhDs, he wrote to his old PhD supervisor in Columbia, asking whether it would be possible to resume work on his dissertation after many years. Chris then completed his dissertation and began a prolific career publishing books on German business history that were informed by massive archival research, a deep knowledge of many aspects of German history, and his immense knowledge of accountancy and business more generally. Chris’s training meant that he was able to understand the most complex balance sheets, a set of skills few business historians have (that certainly includes me).
Chris understood the numbers and the purely economic side of business. However, his research on German business history was always informed by a very strong sense of ethics, particularly his writings related to the period from 1933 to 1945. Chris was a strong classical liberal who believed in free markets. Perhaps in some ways he can be called a conservative in his politics. However, his belief that capitalism is a good system did not at all prevent him from calling out corporate misdeed or exposing evil actions by corporations. He was a critical friend of business who was not afraid to speak truth to power. He was not a mindless cheerleader for business. I also know that Chris was truly appalled by the recent developments in the United States, particularly the rise of the Alt-Right, xenophobia, and the attendant persecution of a religious minority (in that case, Muslims). In the last year of his life, the refugee crisis was very much evident in Chris’s neighbourhood in the 11th arrondisement of Paris, as there were families of Syrian refugees begging on the street. Even after the Bataclan terror attack, which took place near his house, Chris displayed a compassionate attitude towards refugees and I strongly suspect that this was connected to the fact his father had been a refugee. I know that Chris was angered when the Canadian government announced that it would participate in air strikes against ISIS. I did, however, hear him praise the Canadian government’s decision to admit refugees. My point is that his political views were complex, like those of all first-class scholars.
Chris helped me to organize and fund a small conference on the intersection of business and environmental history that took place at Rotman in 2014. Even though he knew nothing about the sub-discipline of environmental history, Chris provided excellent feedback to all of the scholars who presented. He devoted considerable effort to thinking about all of the papers, including the very embryonic works presented by PhD students. Some of the papers from this workshop will soon appear in a special issue of a journal. Chris also served as a commentator at a 2014 workshop on the impact of the First World War on international business. (His encouragement and mentorship made that workshop possible). An edited volume based on the workshop was recently published, but I don’t think that Chris had time to read it.
Last summer, I saw further evidence of Chris’s generosity with his time. He attended a workshop at EHESS in Paris brought French and Japanese academics together to discuss the recent energy histories of their countries (both of which are characterized by heavy reliance on nuclear power). The workshop was in a hot room and some of participants became drowsy and rather inactive. Chris continued to ask great questions designed to help the scholars who were presenting. Chris’s questions were always insightful and displayed a surprisingly deep knowledge of the subject. (At least this level of knowledge was surprising to me, someone who knows next to nothing about nukes). I noticed that at the end of the conference he tracked down a talented young PhD student from the University of Kyoto to get his contact details. I knew exactly what Chris was doing—he had spotted a rising star and wanted to keep in touch with him.
At a conference held last year in Berlin, Chris commented on my paper on the history of a nineteenth-century Canadian sugar refining company. At a time when slavery was still legal in some but not all of the sugar-producing islands of the Caribbean, this company decided to source its raw sugar from the countries in which slavery was still legal for the simple reason it was cheaper. Ironically, the firm’s founder was a supporter of the abolition of slavery who gave money to organizations the helped escaped American slaves to establish themselves in Canada. Our paper examined the company’s reasons for doing so and consumers’ responses to this moral choice. Anyway, Chris loved our paper and encouraged us to develop our analysis of the ethical reasoning of the firm’s managers. He made a number of perceptive observations about the nature of business ethics and business decision-making. One of these observations drew on his knowledge of something he had observed during his business career, which had overlapped with the era when the morality of investing in South Africa had been vigorously debated. I certainly share Chris’s belief that to be a true friend of capitalism, a business historian needs to be ruthlessly critical of those business leaders who engage in unethical behaviour, be it profiting from the Aryanization of Jewish firms or the enslavement of Africans or something in the present day.
Chris played an important role in the global community of business historians. Many business historians, like most academics in general actually, are a bit parochial in the sense that research the histories of companies in just one country and that country happens to be the one in which they were born and have spent their entire life. That isn’t to say that they don’t good research, merely that their frame of reference is national. However, I’ve noticed that the people at the very peak of the discipline of business history (e.g., Geoffrey Jones or the late Alfred Chandler) are far more international in their outlook—their research tends to be comparative and transnational and their research collaborations and biographies are similarly international. Chris was very much a business historian of this type. His extensive connections to firms, business archives, and academics on multiple continents meant that he was able to play an important role as a sort of human bridge or go-between in international business history organizations. He could talk to the US business historians and the German business historians and the Japanese ones and then get them to agree a common plan of action. As I have matured as a scholar and a person, I have sought be more like Chris in this respect—more international and less parochial.
As he approached mandatory retirement age at ESCP, a new opportunity for Chris opened up. French universities still have mandatory retirement, a rule that was eliminated in universities in the Canadian Province of Ontario around the year 2005, the year I got my PhD. At the time, I was appalled by the decision to end mandatory retirement for tenured academics, since I thought it would protect deadwood and blight the career prospects of young scholars. Seeing Chris in action at the University of Toronto has helped to convince me that scrapping mandatory retirement was the right policy. In 2012, Chris was hired as the L.R. Wilson/R.J. Currie Chair of Canadian Business and Financial History in Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. This chair was created through the generosity of donors who wanted to re-invigorate academic research into Canadian business history. When Chris’s appointment was announced, there was the predictable grumbling that someone who was neither Canadian nor a scholar of Canada had been appointed. Chris swiftly devoted himself to research and writing about Canadian financial history—University of Toronto Press will publish an important volume on that subject posthumously. More importantly, Chris devoted his considerable energies to institutional work aimed at bringing about a renaissance in Canadian business history: he was instrumental in the creation of the Canadian Business History Association, a bilingual society devoted to the study of Canadian business history that brought together academics, businesspeople, and others. The CBHA was modelled on Germany’s Gesellschaft für Unternehmensgeschichte, an organization Chris knew very well. Chris and his colleagues at Rotman were extremely energetic at securing financial support from a wide range of donors. In its short life, this organization has done a great deal to provide practical support to younger scholars both financially and through encouragement and feedback. I would imagine that the CBHA will create some sort of memorial, perhaps an award, in his memory.
After his appointment by the University of Toronto, Chris performed public intellectual functions as well, taking advantage of his proximity to downtown Toronto, the home of the English-Canadian TV networks and national newspapers. He appeared frequently on The Agenda, TVO’s flagship program for debate and analysis. The Agenda rivals the finest BBC program for its ability to make abstract academic knowledge relevant and accessible to the general public and many smart people have appeared on this show. Chris performed brilliantly in this distinguished venue, which reflected well on him and, by extension, the business history community. You can see Chris talking about the future of Greece in the Eurozone here.
Chris remained committed to the craft of history and to the writing of narrative accounts of companies. In that sense, he was a fairly traditional business historian. He had little time for the approach to business history one finds in some management schools, which is to dig up a primary source or two, stir in a few cups of “Eurotheory”, and then present research findings that would be of zero interest to any actual businessperson. For that reason, he wasn’t, at first, terribly interested in the emerging stream of research in management on “the Uses of the Past.” However, he did believe that business historians did have the capacity speak to key themes debates in finance, strategy, and other core management disciplines and he uses his position at Rotman to bring respected business historians into contact with respected scholars in strategy and finance.
Last autumn, I finally convinced Chris to work with me on a paper that would examine how historical knowledge is used by people in finance. Other academics have published works on how banks use their historians (e.g., by stressing how old the bank is in advertisements targeted at depositors). Our research was different and would have involved interviewing people in Toronto’s financial district about how they apply lessons from history in business decision-making. We know that CEOs often read works of history (generals also like reading history, although they tend to prefer military history). We know from a study involving interviews with Dutch C-Suite executives that many businesspeople believe that learning about various types of history improves their decision-making. However, we don’t quite know exactly how this process works—what specific types of business decisions are improved by knowing about history? What specific types of historical knowledge improve business decision-making? We planned to run a bunch of interviews designed to answer these questions. The idea was that Chris would use his extensive networks and Rotman position to get us the interviews with these extremely busy people. Our ultimate goal was to publish a paper in a Special Issue of the Strategic Management Journal that will be devoted to what history can offer strategy. We both felt that this research project would be of interest to a wide range of knowledge users, not just business school academics, since would allow us to go beyond the platitude that “learning history makes for better decisions” to an understanding how precisely particular types of historical knowledge improve particular cognitive functions in business. Alas, this research project won’t actually take place as I lack Chris’s connections and, of course, detailed knowledge of financial decision-making. I’m saddened because I was really looking forward to learning by working alongside Chris on this research.
One of the things we have lost with the passing of Chris is an encyclopaedic knowledge of restaurants in European cities. I would like to conclude this blog post by sharing a restaurant recommendation he made. His favourite restaurant in Paris was the Auberge Pyrénées Cévennes Rue de la Folie Mericourt. He ate there frequently and knew the staff very well. (Chris once treated me to a very expensive meal there that I would never have selected from the menu had he not insisted I order it). I would encourage all of those who knew Chris or admired his research to eat there and to tell the staff that Chris sends his regards.