A Nobel Prize for Steve Jobs?

The Nobel Prize in Economics was awarded Oct. 10. It went to Christopher Sims and Thomas Sargent - two fairly obscure economists whose main work was on rational expectations theory.

That followed by five days the death of Steve Jobs, whom the Nobel Prize committee never recognized in any way.

That hardly seems fair, to me.

Jobs made billions of dollars, built the most recognizable global brand since The Coca-Cola Co. (NYSE: KO), and revolutionized the way we consume media. Sims and Sargent, though certainly brilliant, hardly contributed as much.

So why don't the Nobel Prize committee award a Nobel Business Prize annually?

The Nobel Foundation wouldn't even have to offer up very much prize money, since presumably any businessman worthy of the prize would already be rich.

You may think the Financial Times has got ahead of me on this, since it recently discussed a Nobel Prize in management. But no, a Nobel Prize in business is absolutely not the same thing as a Nobel Prize in management.

Here's the difference, as well as some other truly deserving Nobel candidates.

Business vs. Management

Nobel prizewinners in management would be sharks - people like "Neutron Jack" Welch, the long-time head of General Electric Co. (NYSE: GE). Welch achieved enormous wealth for himself and spectacular stock price growth with a combination of ruthless cost cutting, short-term profit maximizing, crony capitalist deals with the government, and dodgy accounting of pension liabilities.

As we now know, 10 years after he left, the U.S. economy is not better off for Welch's work at GE, and GE shareholders have found themselves locked into a dull, slow-growth conglomerate that suffers intermittent profit explosions from its unmanageable and low-quality finance side.

Welch was management. Jobs was business.

That's the difference.

There's not a 100% correlation between business ability and wealth. The three richest men in the world today are Warren Buffett, Bill Gates and Carlos Slim - all of whom have made their fortunes through business. Yet there are arguments against giving a Nobel Business Prize to any of them.

Buffett is certainly a superb investor - or was until about 1990; his track record since then is nothing special - yet has added little to our technologies or our understanding of how business should be done.

Gates was a superb entrepreneur and is perhaps the best candidate of the three. Yet, in terms of tech sector innovation, there are several names that would rank ahead of him - it's just that his control of the operating system business turned out to be spectacularly profitable.

As for Carlos Slim, his wealth rests mostly on crony capitalism deals in Mexico, with no significant case as a business innovator.

However, apart from Jobs, there are a number of other tech sector worthies who deserve a Nobel Business Prize.

Nobel Business Prize Candidates

One is Jeff Bezos. Of all the changes in our lives caused by the Internet, the ability to buy things from a global Internet supplier is the most germane to our daily lives. I would argue that Amazon.com Inc. (Nasdaq: AMZN) actually might be seen as more important than Apple in the long run.

Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web, is the anti-Carlos Slim. He should certainly get a Nobel - but maybe not for business, since he was never involved significantly in a commercial venture.

In the middle are the current giants of the Internet business, Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google Inc. (Nasdaq: GOOG) and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook Inc.

For them, it's useful that the Nobel committees traditionally wait 20 years or so before awarding prizes. If they had wanted to award a Business Prize for a search engine, and had done so early, it would have been given to Garrett Gruener and David Warthen - the founders of Ask Jeeves, which actually was the first successful search engine.

Yet, now it seems almost certain that Google, not Ask Jeeves, is the true long-term search engine prototype. As for Facebook, it's still perhaps too early to tell. What if, by delaying its initial public offering (IPO) this year, when the company had a $75 billion potential value, it missed the market?

So if Nobel Business Prizes were being awarded today, Page and Brin might get one - but Zuckerberg probably not yet. Either way, Jobs and Bezos would rank ahead of any of them.

Nobel Business Prizes would spread well beyond the tech sector.

Ray Kroc, the builder of McDonald's Corp. (NYSE: MCD) should certainly have gotten one. And Sam Walton, builder of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (NYSE: WMT), also had an excellent case.

Entrepreneurship isn't essential, either; if a Nobel Business Prize had existed back then it would have been absurd not to give one to Alfred P. Sloan. Sloan not only made General Motors Co. (NYSE: GM) the world's largest company, but also invented the divisional structure and much of the reporting paraphernalia of modern management.

Thomas J. Watson Sr. and Thomas J. Watson Jr., the father and son trailblazers of International Business Machines Corp. (NYSE: IBM), are somewhere in between entrepreneurship and mere maintenance. So is Joseph Wilson, who took over the obscure Haloid Corp. and turned it into Xerox Corp. (NYSE: XRX).

On the other hand, Robert Nardelli, who made a fortune shaking up The Home Depot Inc. (NYSE: HD) and retiring at the top of the market in 2006, like Neutron Jack, is much less impressive in retrospect than at the time.

Naturally, in today's world, a majority of Nobel Business Prize recipients would be from outside the United States. Akio Morita, the founder of Sony Corp. (NYSE ADR: SNE) should certainly have gotten one, as should Hiroshi Yamauchi, who more or less invented the modern video game industry at Nintendo Co. Ltd. (PINK: NTDOY). Morris Chang, founder and chairman of Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. Ltd. (NYSE ADR: TSMC) also has an excellent case.

There's probably a case for the Australian-born Rupert Murdoch, of News Corp. (Nasdaq: NWS). Lakshmi Mittal of ArcelorMittal (NYSE ADR: MT) would certainly have a case and Ratan Tata of the Tata Group would have an even better one, if only for his revolutionizing the world automobile industry through Tata Motors Ltd. (NYSE ADR: TTM).

In Europe, the sluggish pace of business and its hierarchical structure would make potential Nobel Business Prize winners rather scarce, but Sweden's Marcus Wallenberg Jr., who died in 1982 after gaining control of most of the Swedish companies you've heard of, should certainly have gotten one, as should Sigmund Warburg in banking (also died 1982).

Indeed, Nobel science prizes reward academic scientists nicely, while Nobel economics prizes are mainly watched to see whether Austrians, monetarists, Keynesians or Marxists have won.

But a Nobel Prize that focused ordinary businessmen who changed the world - not merely on those who amassed the most money - would convince academics like Berners-Lee that business might be worthy of their attention.

It's well worth doing.

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