A Report on the Association of Business Historians Conference 2014

2 07 2014

The ABH conference took place at Newcastle University Business School last week. I presented two papers: “Trading With the Enemy: HSBC’s Relationships with German Companies during the First World War” and “From Hierarchy to Market in Hong Kong’s retail banking, 1945-2005.” The second paper was co-authored with Bernardo Batiz-Lazo. I got valuable feedback and am currently revising the papers for submission.

The audience seemed to like the general approach I was taking in my paper on HSBC in the First World War. Some of my listeners were surprised to learn that the London branches of German banks remained in operation for much of the war. Other listeners were well aware of this fact and knew more than me about some of the British individuals who closely monitored these branches.  A historian of accountancy gave me very focused advice about a specific individual I need to investigate a bit more. I’m not certain what the audience thought of the theoretical framing of the paper, especially my decision to draw on the  theories of IB scholar Pankaj Ghemawat.  A senior person in the audience did suggest that I would have trouble publishing the paper in an International Business journal such as JIBS, since such journals have not yet been affected by the “historic turn” in management schools.  They are still pretty ahistorical, I’m told.

People really liked the theoretical framework we used in the Hong Kong payment systems paper, which was inspired by the knowledge-based theory of the firm developed by Lars Håkanson in his work on the firm as an “epistemic community.” We combined Håkanson’s theory with transaction-cost economics in studying the organizations that structured the transition to the cashless society in Hong Kong. During the early phases of Hong Kong’s transition towards the cashless society, the relevant technological innovations took place largely within the boundaries of large, Chandlerian corporations. During the more recent periods, interfirm networks became more important. Our paper compared and contrasted the “internal” deployment of early computers (at HSBC) in the pursuit of economies of scale in the 1960s and 1970s; with the “external” (i.e. non-bank or market) use of computers in micro-payments (Octopus chip) in the 1990s and 2000s.

Let me turn now from my papers to the conference in general. The conference went well. The organization was smooth, the IT always worked, and the food was superb.  Of course, you can say that of many conferences. The academic quality of the conference, which is the crucial thing, was high. This year’s ABH was inspirational and invigorating. I got the impression that many of the papers I was listening to were going to end up in 4 and 3 star journals. Moreover, the conference got me thinking about what it is to be a business historian in a management school. Where does my comparative advantage lay?  What relative strengths do people trained in history have?  What is the ideal division of labour when business historians collaborate with other management academics? What can I bring to the table that other management academics cannot?

Ostensibly, the theme of this year’s ABH conference was Crisis, Accountability and Institutions. At least that was the theme mentioned in the Call For Papers we sent out last year. However, conferences and workshops have a way of developing their own “emergent” themes that are different from those originally planned by the organizers. Call it Hayekian spontaneous order if you will.  I admired how the organizers of this year’s ABH allowed a theme that wasn’t mentioned in the original CFP to emerge and become dominant rather than try to squeeze the conference back into the original theme. There is a lesson there for all of us who organize conferences, workshops, or indeed anything in life, including the education of children.

Anyway, the issue that emerged as the central theme of this year’s ABH conference was the “historic turn” in management studies. In other words,  question of how business history can be mainstreamed (i.e., incorporated into the core curriculum of business schools and published in core management-schools journals). Back in 2004, Clark and Rowlinson called for a “historic turn” (i.e., the integration of “more history” into research and teaching is business and management schools. Keulen and Kroeze (2012) claimed that since 2004, incorporating history has indeed become “more common.”  When I first read the Keulen and Kroeze piece, my reaction that their claim that history was becoming part of the mainstream was an exercise in wishful thinking. I thought that because Keulen and Kroeze do not provide hard bibliometric data to support their assertion that there has been an increase in the volume of historical research published in top-tier management journals.

As the discussion at this year’s ABH conference made clear, a great deal has happened since Keulen and Kroeze wrote their optimistic piece in late 2011. Top management-school journals have recently published important articles by business historians. This point was made by Roy Suddaby in his keynote address. [Note:  Suddaby is the Eldon Foote Chair of Law and Society at the University of Alberta and is the Editor of the Academy of Management Review. He currently holds visiting professor positions at the University of Newcastle Business School and Copenhagen Business School, two institutions that really value historical research and teaching.] It was a reinforced at a roundtable session at which the current state of business history in management schools was discussed by Stephanie Decker, Michael Rowlinson, Alan McKinlay, Roy Suddaby, Alistair Mutch, Dan Wadhwani,  and John Wilson. The panellists discussed the recent publishing successes by members of the Business History community (see image below of a PowerPoint slide with some key publications listed on in) and strategies for helping to strengthen business history.

ABH 2014

There are a number of younger business historians who were trained in history departments and who are now working on getting their research published in core management school journals. What I would like to propose is an informal bi-annual gathering of such historians where we present our research and then get advice from scholars with similar disciplinary backgrounds who have already succeeded in getting their research published in the target journals. Essentially, this would involve an informal gathering at a seminar room somewhere near the middle of the UK, some beer and sandwiches, and then industrial-strength feedback.

I’ve included some photos that I took during the conference below. The first shows Laurence Mussio presenting on the history of the Bank of Montreal. The second shows Davie Bowie of Oxford Brookes presenting on the history of hotel management in Victorian Britain.

Mussio at ABH 2014


David Bowie


I didn’t get a chance to see much of Newcastle, but I was impressed by the parts of the city I saw, which were mainly located between the central railway station, my hotel, and the conference venue. The Sainsbury’s supermarket in the station has a very good selection of takeaway meals that you can bring with you on a train journey. The selection was much more extensive than in the average Sainsbury’s located in a train station.  Newcastle’s subway system was excellent and has roughly as many stations as Toronto’s network. Contactless payment systems similar to those pioneered in Hong Kong in the 1990s are used by passengers. There is a Chinatown of respectable size there, which means that an East Asian person would have no problem getting ingredients for their meals. I noticed that Taiwanese-style bubble tea, which is rarely found in British Chinatowns, was available in Newcastle. Bubble tea will be familiar to those who live near Canadian Chinatowns or university campuses.

Bubble Tea in Newcastle Chinatown

Bubble Tea in Newcastle’s Chinatown



Works Cited

Clark, P., & Rowlinson, M. 2004. The Treatment of History in Organisation Studies: Towards an ‘Historic Turn’? Business History. 46, 331-352.

Håkanson, L. 2010. The firm as an epistemic community: the knowledge-based view revisited. Industrial and Corporate Change vol. 19, no. 6 (2010), 1814.

Langlois, R.N., 2003. The vanishing hand: the changing dynamics of industrial capitalism. Industrial and Corporate Change 12, 351-385.

Keulen, S., & Kroeze, R. 2012. Understanding management gurus and historical narratives: The benefits of a historic turn in management and organization studies. Management & Organizational History7(2), 171-189.


Business History and Environmental History

10 07 2012

I recently presented at the Association of Business Historians conference in Birmingham. It was a brilliant success, which attests to the organizational skills of Stephanie Decker, the chief planner. I always find business history conferences to be immensely stimulating because of their interdisciplinary nature and the commitment of the presenters to research that is both archive-based and theoretically informed.
There were many great papers at this year’s conference. However, there was one in particular that got me thinking about some of the fundamental issues that face business history as a discipline. That paper was by someone who wouldn’t describe herself as a business historian. I’m speaking of Jessica van Horssen’s piece, Medical Risk vs. Financial Reward: Corporate Social Responsibility in the Global Asbestos Trade, 1930-1977, which focused on the history of the Canadian asbestos industry, which she argued was basically the antithesis of ethical capitalism. The paper is based on her PhD research, which is described here.

Driving home after the conference, I got thinking about the relationship between the sub-disciplines of business history and environmental history. I would say that these two sub-disciplines are currently thriving: more and more people want to be associated with them, attend their conferences, publish in their journals, etc.

These two sub-disciplines are thriving, in part, because they are interdisciplinary in a way that, say, diplomatic or gender history are not. Business and environmental history conferences attract scholars based in a range of disciplinary departments. At a typical business history conference, one will find people from such departments as public policy, political science, marketing, strategy, accounting, economics, as well as history. These scholars are drawing on a wide range of theoretical frameworks, ranging from Foucault to hardcore statistical analysis. Environment history conferences are equally inter-disciplinary, as they attract a range of scholars from the social and physical sciences.

Environmental and business history are quite similar in a lot of respects. It is sad, therefore, that there are isn’t more overlap between these two sub-disciplines. Logically, these two sub-disciplines should be engaged in an extensive dialogue, since for-profit entities have had a major impact on the environment over the last few hundred years.

In an article that appeared in the Business History Review in 2000, Christine Meisner Rosen and Christopher C. Sellers called for more engagement between the two sub-disciplines. They told business historians to do more research into the impact of companies on the environment and they told environmental historians to pay more attention to business and familiarise themselves with the secondary literature on business history. They wrote:

Oddly enough, however, despite this broad conception of their field, our colleagues in environmental history have shown almost as much reluctance to tackle business’s environmental relations as business historians have. Both fields have sorely neglected the borderlands between them. Pathbreaking environmental historians have launched a harsh critique of capitalism that has entailed surprisingly little scrutiny of managers or corporations.  Early on, most environmental historians concentrated on the history of wilderness, agriculture, the conservation movement, or modern environmentalism, where they believed nature and its defense were most obviously found.  Preoccupied with setting out a distinctive field of historical endeavor in relation to frontier and Western history as well as environmentalism itself, most assumed that they knew the history of the large corporation all too well—its inner workings as well as its outwardly impacts. They envisioned a monolithic nineteenth¬ and twentieth¬century economic system that offered little entry point or incentive for closer study of individual companies, businessmen, or even industries as a whole. A 1990 Journal of American History roundtable presenting the views and agendas of major environmental historians offered virtually no discussion of the shift to corporate capitalism that had become the central preoccupation of business history.

Obviously there has been some improvement in the last twelve years. Christine Meisner Rosen and Christopher C. Sellers have continued to publish work that lies on the interface between environmental and business history. Richard White springs to mind as an example of a historian whose research speaks to both environmental and business history. In 2007, Enterprise and Society, a leading business history journal, published Pierre Desrochers’s fascinating article “How Did the Invisible Hand Handle Industrial Waste? By-Product Development Before the Modern Environmental Era”. However, I think that it is still safe to say that the amount of cross-over research on business and environmental history is very limited, especially in view of the enormous importance of the topics involved. In their 2009 piece in the Jahrbuch für Wirtschaftsgeschichte, Hartmut Berghoff and Mathias Mutz showed that the situation hadn’t changed that much since 2000.

I might be wrong, but I don’t think there has been much improvement in the last three years either.

Association of Business Historians Conference

29 06 2011

Henley Business School

The Association of Business Historians Conference begins on Friday. It`s taking place at the Centre of International Business History, Henley Business School, University of Reading. After careful deliberation and some agonising choices about which sessions to attend, I have finalised my session choices. There are so many good papers being presented at the same time. The organizing team has put together a first-class conference.

I`ll be too busy to live blog the conference, but I may be able to upload a few quick comments to the blog by phone.


09.30 – 11.00 – Arrival and registration (tea / coffee) [HBS foyer]

11.00 – 12.30 – Keynote address [ICMA small leture theatre]

Walter Friedman (Harvard Business School), ‘Capitalism, Business, and Uncertainty’

12.30 – 13.30 – Lunch [HBS foyer]

13.30 – 15.00 – Parallel Sessions (I)

Sustaining business networks in the eighteenth century British-Atlantic world [HBS 208]
Chair: Mark Billings (University of Nottingham)

Emily Buchnea (University of Nottingham), ‘Persistent Commerce: The Continuity of Trade in the Liverpool-New York Commercial Network, 1763-1833’

John Haggerty (University of Salford), ‘Sustaining Business Networks during Uncertain Times: A Case Study of a Liverpool Trade Association, 1750-1810’

Sheryllynne Haggerty (University of Nottingham), ‘The importance of Trust in Sustaining Business in the Atlantic, 1750-1815’

Session II

Managers and shareholders [HBS 108]
Chair: Anna Spadavecchia (Henley Business School, University of Reading)

David Green (Kings College London) and Janette Rutterford (Open University), ‘Spreading the net: distance, shareholding and the geography of risk in England and Wales 1870 to 1935’

Karen Ward Mahar (Siena College), ‘Gender and the American executive at mid-century’

Malcolm Pearse (Macquarie University), ‘Early modernisation in Australian business: the rise of the salaried manager, 1851-1900’

17.00 – 18.00 – Coleman Prize presentations [HBS G15]

19.00 – 20.00 – Reception

20.00 – 22.00 – Conference dinner


Session 3

Merchants and traders [HBS G15]
Chair: Andrew Popp (University of Liverpool)

Katie McDade (University of Nottingham), ‘Mobilisation of Bristol and Liverpool slave trade merchant networks and their relationship to the state.’

Manuel Llorca-Jana (University of Chile), ‘Huth & Co.’s global networks, c.1809-1850. A London merchant-banker in action.’

Shakila Yacob (University of Malaya), ‘The Behn Meyer Story (1840-2000): a phoenix rises twice.’

Session 4

Finance and the political / regulatory environment [HBS G10]
Chair: Chris Kobrak (ESCP, Paris)

Bernardo Batiz-Lazo (Bangor University), ‘The disciplinary power of accounting-based regulation: the case of building societies, c.1960’

Eoin McLaughlin (University of Edinburgh), ‘Capture and sustainability: Irish loan fund societies, 1860-1914’

Andrew Smith (Coventry University), ‘Sustaining trust despite rumours of war: the impact of the American Civil War on credit reporting in Canada, 1860-1865’

Session 5

Entrepreneurship: long run perspectives [HBS 108]
Chair: John Wilson (University of Liverpool)

Mark Casson (University of Reading), ‘The evolution of entrepreneurship in long-run perspective: England, 1000-2000’

Tony Corley (University of Reading), ‘How to ensure sustainability: Beecham’s survival 1848-2000’

Rosa Reicher (University of Heidelberg), ‘Dublin Jewry: a sustainable community in Ireland of the 19th and 20th centuries’

Session 6

Natural resources [HBS 108]
Chair: Rory Miller (University of Liverpool)

Juan Diego Perez Cebada (University of Huelva), ‘Sustainability and non-ferrous mining companies before the “ecological era”’

Xavier Duran (Universidad de Los Andes) and Marcelo Bucheli (University of Illinois), ‘Who pays for the price of oil: The case of Standard Oil in Colombia’

Peter Sims (London School of Economics), ‘Crisis, recovery and overproduction: British entrepreneurs and rural production in Uruguay, 1852-65’

My Impressions of the Association of Business Historians Conference

18 07 2010

My Impressions of the Association of Business Historians Conference

I have just returned from the Association of Business Historians conference. This was my first time at this conference and I must say that I was really impressed both the organization of the event and the quality of the papers.

Here are some quick and dirty observations about some of the papers I found  particularly interesting.

The keynote speech was given by Professor Colin Divall (University of York and National Railway Museum)
“To encourage such as would travel a little, to travel more:  Business History, Global Networks and the Future of Mobility” an interesting effort to integrate the histories of transportation and globalization with environmental history.  Divall placed the ongoing efforts to decarbonize transportation (i.e., to reduce the carbon footprints of intensive users of transport such as yours truly) in a historical context.

I liked the panel on Finance, Governance and Takeovers, where Michael Rowlinson, Queen Mary, University of London, The takeover of Cadbury by Kraft: heritage and historiography”. His paper gave us a sense of why companies invest resources in publishing official histories and otherwise telling people about their pasts. Why do companies create “usable pasts” for themselves? Rowlinson showed that Cadbury created an image of history that stressed the firms god-fearing, Quaker origins after an early 20th century ethical scandal about. He showed how the social memory of Cadbury as an ethical company persisted until the firm’s recent and controversial acquisition by Kraft.

I also heard a great paper by Andrew Tylecote (University of Sheffield) “Power, governance and the financial system: why the globalisation of finance worked before 1914 and doesn’t now.”  Before 1914, vast amounts of capital flowed from Europe, where savings were abundant and opportunities to invest were limited, to the settler economies, which needed the capital to build up the economies (e.g., by building railways in Canada and Argentina). This is more or less what economics would predict. Today, vast amounts of capital flow from relatively and underdeveloped economies into the industrialized countries where much of it is used to finance consumer expenditure, which is counterintuitive on many levels.  His paper tries to explain this paradox.

Stephanie Decker (University of Liverpool) “Traditional and non-traditional foreign investors in the economic decolonization of Ghana and Nigeria.” This great paper looked at the turn-key factories built in the 1960s, when Western contractors built steelmills and other factories in Africa countries than then turned them over to the local governments. This wave of projects did very little to benefit the newly independent countries and got them into debt to the west.

Peter Sørensen and Kurt Pedersen (University of Aarhus) „German foreign direct investments into Denmark during the Occupation.‟ This very interesting paper looked at German FDI in occupied Denmark. In most places in occupied Europe, the Germans simply seized assets at gunpoint and did not pretend to respect existing property rights. In contrast, they were very respectively of the existing institutions in occupied Denmark, which continued to have a functioning democracy and market economy for much of the war. During the war, German firms purchased a wide variety of assets in Denmark.

I heard three great papers on “The Importance of Local to Global Networks”
„The mighty instrument of concord: comparative advantage, Corn Laws, and the construction of naturalised free trade‟ Thomas D. Finger (University of Virginia)

„Local credit networks in the first age of global trade.‟
Mina Ishizu (London School of Economics) This paper looked at the British merchants who flooded into Brazil after 1807.
„Islands in a sea of trade: Liverpool‟s business networks in a globalising market, 1750-1810.‟
Sheryllynne Haggerty (University of Nottingham) This great paper looked at business networks and the economic aspects of the rise of anti-slavery sentiment.

I heard some good papers on advertising.

The paper „Cigarette papers: The John Player & Sons advertising archive.‟ Andrew Newnham (University of Nottingham) should interest all smokers, not to mention cultural historians interesting in tobacco.
„From the local to the global at Rowntree & Co. York, c 1900-1969.” Emma Robertson (Sheffield Hallam University) should interest cultural historians of Empire.

The last panel I heard was International Shipping and Absentee Landlords: Assurance, Mortality and Slavery

John Killick (University of Leeds) „North Atlantic steerage fares, mortality, and travel conditions, 1820-1870: evidence from the Cope Line Passenger Service”

This fantastic paper was based on the records of a packet line that carried many emigrants from the British Isles to the United States. The paper challenged the claims of the existing historiography, including the view that shipboard mortality rates were extremely high. The deplorable conditions on board the Coffin Ships that brought Irish famine refugees to North America in the 1840s are the stuff of social memory. This paper suggests that shipboard mortality on most ships was actually quite low and only somewhat higher than would be expected with a similar population on land. The paper also showed the costs in work-time to purchase trans-Atlantic passage fell dramatically in the period studied. In the 1820s, it would have taken almost a year of unskilled work to pay for a trip across the Atlantic. By the 1850s, this had fallen to roughly 80 days of earnings. (I didn’t write down the exact numbers, I’m afraid).

Simon Smith (University of Hull), “The curse of the Caribbean: absentee planting on St Vincent and the Grenadines, 1817-34”

Another great paper. Many slave plantations in the West Indies had absentee proprietors. Historians have traditional regarded the widespread use of agents to manage plantations on behalf of absentees as something that made plantations less efficient and retarded the development of the islands. This paper showed the plantations with absentee owners actually had somewhat higher output per slave than plantations with resident owners.

I also attended the presentations by the finalists for the Coleman prize, which is given to the best PhD thesis on a business history topic completed in Britain. It is sort of the equivalent of the Krooss Prize in the United States. The three presentations I heard were all great, but the research project that most interested me was that of Albane Forestier. Her PhD thesis compared a pre-Revolutionary French merchant house that traded with the French West Indies with a similar British firm. Her paper compared practices related to debt and contract enforcement. It should interest Canadian historians, especially those interested in that old chestnut of Canadian history: why were French-speaking merchants in Montreal largely displaced by an English-speaking bourgeoisie after the British Conquest of New France.  Forestier now lives in Montreal, where she is a Post-doctoral Fellow in the French Atlantic History Group at McGill University.  The winner of the prize was Aashish Velkar, who did his thesis on the standardization of units of measurement in Britain, which is also a great topic.