The reason the U.S. is a good place to do business is that, for the past two centuries, it’s built a firm foundation on the rule of law. President Trump almost undid that in a weekend. That’s bad for business.
This piece combines a genre I love—the gritty crime story—with the utter weirdness of the cruise ship industry. Apparently people disappear from cruise ships all the time, but you usually don’t hear about it because the cruise lines keep it quiet. Ronson goes deep into the bizarre cruise culture as he tries to figure out what happened to Rebecca Coriam, who vanished from the Disney Wonder last March.
This story accomplished what seemed almost impossible, at least from an editor’s perspective: it made a compelling narrative out of the Occupy Wall Street encampment in lower Manhattan. Even though OWS was being covered to death, this story—along with Bloomberg Businessweek’s own fine contribution, Drake Bennett’s profile of David Graeber—found a new angle on it and made it fresh and compelling.
His piece about Iceland (“Wall Street on the Tundra”) is my favorite one he’s done about the global financial crisis, but Michael Lewis’s breakdown of the fiscal disaster that is California was his best in 2011. It really makes you think about the scary place we might be headed as a country, and the scene with Arnold Schwarzenegger is priceless.
Clementina doesn’t know who she is. She doesn’t know her nine children, her grandchildren, or the names of her mother and father. She doesn’t know where she lives, where she has lived, or where she is now. People she has never met tell her that they love her. They say they are her daughter or her son. They assure her they used to play cards together — make wine in the bodega across from her house and chorizo on the patio after the local matanzas (pig slaughters). But Clementina doesn’t trust these people; she doesn’t know what they are talking about.
She didn’t trust me either when I first met her seven years ago. I was at my girlfriend’s family home in Villaveta, a dusty hamlet of dilapidated houses in the hinterland of Castilla y León, Spain. We were preparing lunch for the whole family. Clementina sat at the head of the table next to me. She was hunched by her 93 years, and her skin was wrinkled like a date. “Who are you my boy? she asked, squinting through creamy cataracts.
This isn’t a traditional business piece — in the sense that it’s not a profile of a kooky founder or a growing industry, or an investigation into corporate wrongdoing, or a capitalist reckoning. It’s a wrenching read about what happens when a job market/industry (in this case, mental health) slowly folds in on itself while demand for that industry’s services and providers grows dramatically. Monte Reel’s profile of the one psychiatrist in eastern Montana (Joan “Mutt” Dickson, whose grit will stick with you) covers so many other pressing American problems: addiction, guns, depression, anxiety, burnout. Reel’s portrait of Dickson’s work — and his mastery of the background forces at play — is a grim-but-captivating look at what the dearth of mental health resources in the rural and mountain West means.
Why secure actual signatures from partners on multi-million dollar contracts to install fiber-optic cable at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean when you can just forge them? At Bloomberg Businessweek, Austin Carr reports on scam-artist extraordinaire Elizabeth Pierce, the former CEO of Quintillion Subsea Holdings LLC. Pierce created fictitious contracts to fund an Anchorage telecom startup, fleecing investors for a billion dollars before getting caught.
Arctic fiber has been an entrepreneurial fantasy for decades. Soaring demand for broadband helped drive companies, including Google, Facebook, and Amazon.com, to spend tons on high-speed underwater cables that keep customers watching Netflix and YouTube with minimal delay. But many of those lines run in parallel in the Atlantic and Pacific along well-established ocean routes, leaving the world’s internet vulnerable to earthquakes, sabotage, and other disasters both natural and human-made. A trans-Arctic route would help protect against that while offering a more direct path, potentially making internet speeds much faster.
Pierce scribbled her first forged signatures on contracts with the Matanuska Telephone Association, which services south-central Alaskan towns such as Wasilla, in May and June 2015. Although Matanuska CEO Greg Berberich had been reluctant to strike a deal, Pierce assured her investors in New York in an email that Berberich was “nervous but very committed.” The next day she uploaded a contract, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, with what looked like Berberich’s signature to a personal Google Drive account she shared with Murphy, the CIP managing director. Pierce also said she was close to locking in another gigantic sale with the nonprofit Arctic Slope Telephone Association Cooperative, whose customers include residents of remote Inupiat communities and the city of Utqiagvik. Soon she sent Murphy a contract with a phony version of the Arctic Slope CEO’s signature, too.
Pierce executed similar deceptions at least eight times, and the fraudulent contracts totaled more than $1 billion, according to court filings. Sometimes she completely fabricated deals; other times she negotiated real contracts, then changed key pages with more favorable terms.
McDonald's arches under renovation. (VCG/VCG via Getty Images)
In a fascinating story about food and innovation for Bloomburg Businessweek, Thomas Buckley and Leslie Patton write about how McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook has been implementing some revolutionary changes to the fast food chain’s business model. Easterbrook wants, they say, “to reclaim the company’s image as a beacon of innovation, a designation McDonald’s hasn’t enjoyed since roughly the Truman administration.” Despite pushback from some franchise owners, the multibillion dollar company is trying to pull customers back from places like Five Guys and Chipotle by adding Uber Eats, item customization, and hoping to remake stores into data harvesting systems. To show how these programs fit into the company’s history, the authors describe the technological innovations that allowed McDonald’s to expand from a single tiny California burger stand into a titanic brand that feeds 1% of the human population. Even if you don’t eat at McDonald’s, it’s interesting to read about the struggles of a seemingly ever-present global brand that, like Coke and Nestle, has shaped the health of our species, and diluted many countries’ regional identity to a form as dull and predictable as the pink slime that becomes a chicken nugget. Now the challenge is for McDonald’s to rebuild itself into what the authors call “the Amazon of excess sodium.”
Easterbrook’s strategy so far has been vindicated by the numbers. That tailwind is breathing new life into the business. Strong drives 40 miles from his home in Aurora, Ill., every morning to be at his desk by 6 a.m., where he and a handful of other masochistic early risers blast rousing tunes by Journey or Adele on a Bose sound system to get the day going. It’s a routine they began after moving into the new head office, a $250 million building replete with sofa pods in the red and yellow McDonald’s color scheme, an amphitheater, rooftop terraces, and thousands of antique and modern Happy Meal toys locked inside cased glass like priceless museum specimens. Easterbrook opened the office in June of last year in a bid to attract young, tech-forward talent.
In March, McDonald’s acquired artificial intelligence startup Dynamic Yield, headquartered in New York and Tel Aviv, for $300 million—the company’s largest acquisition in 20 years. The burger chain had been testing the machine learning software on drive-thrus at four restaurants in Florida, where screens automatically updated with different items based on the time of day, restaurant traffic, weather, and trending purchases at comparable locations. That technology has been deployed at 8,000 McDonald’s and counting, with plans to be in almost all drive-thrus in the U.S. and Australia by the end of the year, Easterbrook says. The deal signaled an ambition to align the chain with the same predictive algorithms that power impulsive purchasing on Amazon.com or streaming preferences on Netflix. In April, McDonald’s acquired a minority stake in New Zealand-based mobile app vendor Plexure Group Ltd., which helps restaurants engage with diners on their phone with tailored offerings and loyalty programs. The effort falls into the consumer-goods industry’s wider trend toward micromarketing, which has proved effective in driving sales.
In early September, McDonald’s said it was buying Silicon Valley startup Apprente Inc., a developer of voice-recognition technology. The idea is to help speed up lines by eventually having a machine, instead of a person, on the other side of the intercom to relay orders to kitchen staff. The deal for Apprente is McDonald’s third such investment in a technology business in the past six months as the company shakes off a tamer takeover strategy that for decades had focused on buying and selling restaurants from or to operators. McDonald’s is pursuing this new business model even as the latest burger trends steal the buzz from its offerings. Beyond fashionable vegan patties, a new and daunting foe is the fried chicken sandwich at Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen (a Miami-based chain owned by the same company that controls Burger King), which became a national obsession when it was introduced in the U.S. in August.