It wasn’t until the third time George Stalk Jr. was declared dead that his family agreed to turn off the life support. Just 52 years old, the peripatetic strategy consultant from Boston Consulting Group lay strapped to a hospital bed, a virtual skeleton with a ventilator tube protruding from his mouth. Stalk had been comatose for nearly three months, after the rupture of a blood vessel in his abdomen started a cataclysmic chain reaction of internal bleeding in February 2003. And although he’d fought back from the brink twice before, it was time, the doctors said, to let him go.
The physical contrast between the vital man of a few months earlier and the shell of a man lying motionless on the gurney could not have been starker. Stalk had been a crackling wire, one of the most energetic and intellectually curious people ever to roam the halls of corporate America. Intrigued by — or obsessed with — the X factor that makes one company more successful than another, the star consultant would eagerly jet anyplace, anytime, for the chance to nose around a company’s manufacturing process, attack a byzantine cost structure, or convince a CEO that now was the time for change.
In Stalk’s 26 years at BCG, he had gone to so many places and coined so many new ideas that his colleagues dubbed him Johnny Appleseed. In a world in which every dime-a-dozen consultant gets anointed a guru, Stalk was the real deal. He was the father of time-based competition, the concept that explained how Japanese factories were able to make better products more quickly. The most prominent name at one of the most elite strategy firms, he worked with some of the world’s most powerful companies, including General Electric and Ford Motor Co., and had staked out a legacy as someone able to find solutions to vexing business problems before anyone else even figured out that there were problems. Whip-smart and ultracompetitive, he had little patience for those who didn’t share his passion for helping companies figure out how to win. “He is brutally smart, and I choose those words carefully,” says Michael O’Leary, former executive vice president at CIBC, which was a client. “He can be intimidating. But he is an absolute joy to work with. He is a verb, not a noun.”
But while Stalk excelled at detecting toxic situations in his clients’ organizations, he ignored the same warning signs when it came to his own well-being. As his wife, C. Henri, and six children whispered their good-byes, and his colleagues at BCG, meeting in Paris a few weeks later, bowed their heads for a moment of silence, the consensus was clear: George Stalk had literally worked himself to death.
Except that he wasn’t gone yet. Deep inside his coma, trapped in the netherworld between life and death, Stalk’s remarkable mind worked through a series of 18 intense hallucinations bursting with vivid characters, scenes, and dialogue. In them, Stalk was doing what he does best: solving problems.
Lying in a hospital bed at Johns Hopkins Medical Center, Stalk knew he was going to die, although not from the nuclear strike he imagined Japan had launched against England. Stalk and his wife had helped rescue survivors. Now he understood that he wouldn’t recover from the mysterious illness he’d contracted but that he would be going to Heaven. His first thought was that this meant he’d have a chance to see Jim Abegglen, a former mentor at BCG who had been killed in the war.
But how to locate him? “I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how Heaven was organized,” he says. “How would you find someone? Was it by geography? Was it by ethnic origin? Was it by where the person was currently living?” Stalk began an analysis of Heaven’s internal structure, but it soon became clear that it wasn’t needed; the two men would somehow eventually connect. Heaven, it turns out, has no org chart.
Faced with imminent death, some people’s unconscious might have journeyed backward through life. Others might have dreamed of exotic places, or lived out fantasies that their conscious minds would never have permitted. But Stalk’s brain just doesn’t work that way. “I remember waking up saying, ‘Jesus Christ, I just went for three months and didn’t have a single sexual dream,’ ” he laughs. “It was about work.”
An engineer by training, Stalk accepted the scenario he was given and then began to analyze his way through it. His deconstruction of Heaven was typical. “That’s him!” exclaims Thomas Hout, a senior adviser at BCG. “George is tireless. Even as he imagines himself dying, he still asks these questions.”
Somehow, some way, Stalk, now 54, confounded the experts, emerging from his coma to make a full recovery. No one would have begrudged him for retiring to grow vegetables on his Toronto-area farm or fly the radar-controlled planes he loves with his children. But not only is Stalk back to work, he’s also on the road again, promoting a new book written with Rob Lachenauer, Hardball: Are You Playing to Play or Playing to Win? (Harvard Business School Press, 2004).
The book, a controversial reaction to the glut of squishy, culturally focused business books that have dominated the last decade, is about gaining an unassailable advantage over rivals. Written in a clear, no-nonsense style, it lists six strategies ranging from “unleash massive and overwhelming force” to “threaten your competitor’s profit sanctuaries” to “entice your competitor into retreat.” Each is illustrated with corporate examples, from the obvious (Toyota and Southwest Airlines) to the obscure (Wausau Paper and Federal-Mogul). The lesson is simple and harsh: Hardball players do what it takes to win.
Some people have interpreted Hardball as a business version of America’s “go it alone” political strategy in the world, or as a total rejection of the idea that a company’s culture and people are an important part of its edge. Although neither is true, BCG, fearing a political storm, altered some of Hardball’s chapter titles to make them sound less aggressive. But the changes didn’t do much to soothe those who think business should be a kinder, gentler pursuit and that Stalk’s testosterone-fueled emphasis on crushing your competitor is a Stone Age throwback. “[Stalk and Lachenauer] are on a brutal, macho trip,” wrote one reviewer for the Financial Times.
Although Hardball was in the works before Stalk’s illness, its publication serves another purpose, too. It’s a powerful announcement that Stalk is back — and that he’s as focused and as serious as ever. “When I got out of the hospital, I had less interest in finding a middle ground,” he says. And Hardball is hardly the work of a man softened by his brush with mortality. “You want to be home by 5 p.m.? You want to clip coupons? You want to retire before China becomes a problem for your business?” Stalk writes. “Nuh-uh. To play hardball, you and your organization have to go to the ‘heart of the matter’ and stay there. You have to live by the rock face. You have to be willing to put your competitors through pain. You have to have a high energy level and the ability to sustain it.”
The phone call came from BCG’s Washington office, asking Stalk to go to London and give a speech in place of a U.S. Air Force general who had canceled. But first he had to meet the general at Andrews Air Force Base and pass muster. “We found the study you did for us years ago,” said the general, voice full of disgust. He pushed it across the table. “I think this is a piece of crap.” Stalk defended himself. “Of course I expected you to say this was a piece of crap,” he said, “because you didn’t have the guts to implement it.”
Standing up to the general was, it turned out, the right move: He loved this answer and gave Stalk the go-ahead to make the speech. To get him there on time, the Air Force sent him an F-16. Stalk landed just in time to see the horrible aftermath of that nuclear war between Japan and England.
The vision of nuclear hell, like many of Stalk’s hallucinations, has some basis in reality. An Air Force brat who moved 27 times as a child, Stalk actually watched the detonation of atomic bombs in Nevada as an 8-year-old. “My mother would get us up, and we’d look out of the motel window and watch the clouds go up,” he says.
Stalk studied engineering at Michigan, then married C. Henri, whom he’d met during a summer working in Washington, and completed a master’s at MIT. After graduating, he went to work as a consultant for the Air Force and then at Exxon. Along the way, he became interested not just in how a product worked but in how it could give a company a decisive advantage. He decided to go to Harvard Business School, mostly because it had a reputation for being a boot camp. “This place sounded like pure hell,” he remembers with masochistic relish.
Stalk survived HBS, graduating in 1978, and had planned to join a high-tech startup until he heard about BCG, the new- fangled consultancy with a tough reputation and a scientific approach to management. Stalk quickly became a star at figuring out a competitor’s costs, but got pigeonholed as a cost expert and planned to quit. Instead, someone suggested he try a foreign office. Stalk chose Japan, something of a backwater at the time.
Shortly after Stalk arrived in 1979, Bruce Henderson, BCG’s founder, posed a challenge: Why are the Japanese able to achieve higher levels of productivity and quality with smaller, more-capital-intensive factories? Because fat, happy American companies still worshipped the idea of scale, they didn’t really understand the power of the Japanese factory, and Stalk had trouble getting them to fund his research. Instead, he did a series of stealth projects for such existing clients as Clark Equipment and John Deere, spending months at a time inside the factories of their joint-venture partners in Asia. He reached the radical conclusion that while quality and cost were important, time itself — or the ability to organize a factory or a business so as to get more done in less time — was the killer app. Stalk named the theory “time-based competition” and resolved to bring this just-in-time manufacturing system back home.
Becoming the chief evangelist for this new idea meant that Stalk’s already taxing life turned into months, then years, of constant around-the-globe travel. A typical schedule: 10 days in Japan, 10 days in Europe, 10 days back in Japan, 10 days in the United States. He became a regular on Pan American Flight 01, the famous globe-hopping flight. Stalk figures he flew as many as 500,000 miles a year for a decade, appearing in exotic locales wearing a fly-fishing vest over a suit jacket (more pockets) and lugging an enormous, beat-up old briefcase full of Diet Coke.
In 1985, he came back to the States, yet he had trouble getting people to believe his theory. Frustrated, he decided to take a year’s leave of absence from BCG and prove his ideas himself with a real factory in the United States. He landed at Hillenbrand Industries, a conglomerate with a struggling hospital-bed factory. Stalk took two years instead of one, but turned the factory around. The book that followed in 1990, Competing Against Time: How Time-Based Competition Is Reshaping Global Markets, written with Tom Hout, made him a star and gained him entree into the most elite companies.
At GE, for example, Stalk spent about 18 months answering Jack Welch’s challenge to help him find companies that were improving continuously while still delivering higher profits. “He stood out as a guy who was the sharpest leading-edge thinker but also one who was so down-to-earth and so operational,” says Mike Fraizer, now CEO of Genworth Financial and then a GE executive who traveled with Stalk. Welch and his team eventually brought Stalk’s case studies to GE’s executive learning center, where they were taught to thousands of executives.
Stalk gained a reputation as a brilliant thinker, but one who didn’t suffer fools gladly. He sometimes abandoned projects if he felt that his clients didn’t share his passion or commitment to change. And when he stopped learning, it was time to move on. Implementation wasn’t his thing. “One of the things I learned early on was I always have to pair myself with someone who has patience with a client,” he says. “I’m not going to be the guy that’s there to get it done.”
In the midst of this chaos, Stalk’s family was growing as well, now consisting of six kids, four of whom were special-needs children adopted from Korea, Japan, and Russia. They lived on an island off the coast of Maryland while Stalk’s home office was in Chicago. And while, unlike most work-obsessed sorts, he speaks constantly of his family, he’s the first to admit he missed a lot of homework sessions and birthday parties. In 1992, Stalk moved the family to Toronto and took over BCG’s practice there, figuring he wouldn’t have to travel as much.
Yet Stalk simply couldn’t downshift. There was the development of BCG’s worldwide innovation group, the revamping of the firm’s marketing and communications arm, and in 1997, an e-commerce unit, which grew into a $450 million business. “His limits were just beyond [the norm],” says Lachenauer, Stalk’s coauthor on Hardball and now CEO of GEO2 Technologies. “Some partner in Auckland would say, ‘George, we really need you doing something with the Dairy Board,’ something with no self-interest whatsoever. He’d go there at the drop of a hat.” Tom Andruskevich, CEO of Canadian luxury company Henry Birks & Sons, remembers his first meeting with Stalk. “I spoke to him on the phone, and he literally got on a plane the same day and arrived at about 6 p.m. We talked until 11 p.m.,” he says.
As he contemplated his own death, Stalk suddenly had an idea for a management story: Where have all the gurus gone? He consoled himself with the fact that he wasn’t the only one about to disappear; many of the management strategists who had been big names throughout Stalk’s career were dead or no longer adding new ideas to the field. But Stalk couldn’t write the story because he was going to die. So how could he communicate it to someone on the ground? There was no way, he discovered, to send faxes or email from Heaven. “I have to come up with something better here,” he thought.
It had been almost five years since Stalk had really felt healthy. As BCG went into warp speed during the New Economy boom, Stalk did too. In 1998, he contracted hepatitis in Thailand. In 2000, he came down with pneumonia, spending a month in bed unable to work. That same year, he decided to take a life-insurance physical. He didn’t pass it.
Then 2001 hit, bringing with it the dual blow of the dotcom collapse and September 11. BCG’s executive committee issued an all-hands-on-deck call, and Stalk, ever the good soldier, responded. He became interested in pricing as a competitive strategy and built up a pricing group within the company to $50 million in revenue. He also began work on Hardball. “The common theme is that [all my ideas] are about taking advantage to the point where competitors are left astounded by what’s happened. And that’s actually how I get through the day. I’m constantly looking at what’s the opportunity to create advantage here. This is the lens I use over and over.”
But Stalk’s hardball approach to life was taking its toll, and his colleagues and clients could see it happening. “To a fault, he would show up when he was ill,” says Marvin Adams, senior vice president at Ford, who worked with Stalk on a project around that time. “You could tell he was really starting to wear down.” Stalk felt it, too, but thought that if he could just make it to the following spring, things would get better. “One doctor asked, ‘What did you think was going to be different in the spring?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, but it was far enough out there in the future that something had to be different.’ “
He was right. One cold February day in 2003, he was in a Boston hotel room when he began to vomit blood. He decided to go back to Toronto, and by the time he got there, he had lost so much blood that he went straight to the emergency room. In a total system failure, a series of blood vessels ruptured in his stomach. Then, after a few weeks in the hospital, he lost consciousness and found himself trapped in limbo. Making matters worse, the SARS epidemic had hit Toronto just before he went into the hospital, which was placed under strict quarantine. His friends were unable to visit, and his wife and children were allowed in only sporadically, when it seemed most likely that Stalk was going to die.
At some point during Stalk’s coma, his hallucinations changed from those of a man who knew he was dying to those of someone with a chance of survival. He launched into a series of rehabilitation dreams, all of which involved arduous tasks he had no choice but to complete.
Sent to an island in the Caribbean, Stalk realized that in order to survive, he had to go through an obstacle course while scuba diving. But he was unable to move and to breathe, so he was always the last to finish what he called the “mobility challenge.” Suddenly, Stalk was on a mountain outside Las Vegas along with a group of invalids. Caught in a snowstorm, they had to fly a helicopter with a heavy hospital bed attached to it up the mountain. If they didn’t make it, none of them would survive.
Next came a version of Survivor, set in the 1700s. A random group of people had to work together to create everything from food to guns to fire. As Stalk had often observed with clients, the group quickly degenerated into a bunch of separate groups, all flailing away at the same time. It fell to Stalk to figure out the proper sequence of events, creating fire first, then, with the ashes, making gunpowder and finally steel for a gun to use for hunting.
“Who are you?”
“What’s the date?”
“Where are you?”
Every morning, Stalk dreamed that the doctors would ask him the same three questions, and every morning he would get one of the three wrong. “I’m George Stalk. I’m in England. It’s February 21.” His only chance at getting better was to answer all three questions correctly.
On May 5, the same day his BCG partners were praying for him in Paris, Stalk came out of his coma.
“Where are you?” a nurse asked him.
“England,” he said.
“No,” said the nurse, “You’re in Toronto.”
Stalk didn’t believe her. He insisted she wheel in a television set. A few days later, when he regained the ability to speak and was able to call his wife, he realized that he was alive.
On May 28, 2003, Stalk was released from the hospital, with no sense of whether he would live another month or another decade. Typically, he immediately planned to return to work. But he soon realized that his expectations were a hallucination of their own. First, he was so weak that he could barely stand. Then there were the memory problems. “It took me several weeks before I could read a newspaper,” he says. “I couldn’t get to the bottom of the page without forgetting what was at the top.”
He kept pushing himself — until things reached a head just over a month after he came home. “In the space of 24 hours,” he says, “C. Henri caught me driving my car and making plans to fly to Hong Kong. Then Carl Stern [then managing partner of BCG] called to complain about me because I was calling too many people. [C. Henri] came in and said, ‘Look, if you want to kill yourself, kill yourself. I’m here to help you [survive].’ “
Chastened, Stalk pulled back, but it wasn’t easy, as a memo he wrote to his staff in July made clear: “While the doctors are happy with the pace of my recovery, I am disappointed. I hoped to have this wrapped up and behind me by the end of August.” Stalk returned to work full time in June 2004 but says he has sharply curtailed travel and a lot of on-the-ground client work. He makes a point of being home with his family and admits to feeling exhaustion as the day stretches on.
But you’d never know it to sit with Stalk 20 months after his ordeal began. Dressed in a tweed sports coat, beard neatly trimmed, oozing vitality, he has regained the 55 pounds he lost and more, thanks to his four-times-a-day chocolate ice cream fix. He leaps from one huge subject to another, nimbly segueing from the growing power of China to the freight logjam threatening the supply chain in this country. Although he sits calmly, the words spill out like water.
If this is what Stalk calls the “new George,” it’s scary to imagine the old one. But Stalk is now living his own form of time-based competition: Just like the Japanese factory managers he studied, his life is now about getting as much done as possible with maximum efficiency. The projects he takes on these days must have the potential to bear fruit in three to four years. And what was his planning horizon before? “Infinite,” he says softly. One has the sense that he’s mourning his life, even as it continues. He feels healthy again and the doctors don’t see why he can’t live a normal life span, but it’s not the same. The guru of time is now a slave to it.
Stalk was dead, or at least everyone thought so. He lay in a closed casket at an English church, funereal chords echoing through the rafters, about to be buried after succumbing, finally, to his mysterious illness.
But he wasn’t dead yet, although no one knew that because he couldn’t speak or rap on the casket. Suddenly, his cell phone rang inside his coffin. It was his assistant, Bronwyn, calling to tell him that a colleague at BCG had just heard that he’d been sick and was sending a plane to pick him up and take him to the Mayo Clinic. “He said to put you on ice,” Bronwyn said.
To come to terms with death and then to emerge to talk about it is the type of experience that flows a lot more smoothly on Oprah than it does in the halls of BCG. Perhaps that’s why Stalk, when asked what he has learned from the ordeal, shifts uncomfortably in his seat. Later, he emails a list of “ah-has” from the hallucinations: “I have a lot of friends,” he writes. “There are no voice mails, emails, or faxes in emergency rooms.”
This is not the quality of analysis one expects from Stalk, the ultimate research geek. Particularly for an engineer, it may be much easier to remain in the world of the rational, where theories can be proven. “I am not an expert in this,” he says dismissively, “nor have I been sufficiently interested enough to crowd out other things to become interested in this topic.”
Stalk is much more interested in the rough-and-tumble rules of Hardball, the culmination of several decades of observing how companies win and lose in the real world. According to the “Hardball Manifesto” that opens the book, “the leaders of the world’s most successful companies — the hardball winners — believe it is their obligation . . . to see and exploit their competitive advantage to the fullest. And, when possible, the hardball leaders will push that advantage to the point where competitors are squeezed and even feel pain.” One particularly well-told example of “unleashing massive and overwhelming force” is Frito-Lay’s move against the surging Eagle Snacks unit of Anheuser-Busch, which had made alarming inroads into Frito-Lay’s core salty-snacks business. Using a combination of improved quality, price cuts, and better distribution under the inspired direction of then-CEO Roger Enrico, writes Stalk, Frito-Lay fought back — and put Eagle Snacks out of business.
But while Stalk enjoys playing the role of provocateur, it is not true that his book ignores the role of culture or leadership. Both are vital parts of strategy, he says, but many companies wrongly assume that culture itself is the strategy. The book is a resounding riposte to the notion “that it’s somehow crude to talk about yourself as being a winner and by definition, that someone’s losing,” he says. “Excuse me, strategy matters.”
Outside of Hardball, Stalk has limited his work to two other intellectual “buckets” (the BCG bigs took pricing away from him, although he is secretly trying to figure out a way back in). One is developing strategies for competing with the rising power of Chinese companies, which he says are fast becoming America’s true rivals rather than simply low-cost sources. In order to survive, companies will have to pursue the Chinese market, and they’ll have to improve their supply chains dramatically. Stalk is also working on “strategic dislocation,” which means developing a methodology for anticipating the next technologies or concepts that will fundamentally change the world, much as the telegraph, the credit card, and the railroad have.
Sadly for Stalk, dividing his time into buckets makes it hard to do the free association that gets him his best ideas. And China, it turns out, is too big a subject for Stalk to study from the outside. “I’ve gotten to the point where I realize that if I don’t go to China and spend time on the ground, I don’t have much more to say,” he says. But that is exactly the kind of work he’s sworn off doing. “Four years ago, I would have said, ‘Hot damn, I’m on my way!’ Now I think the issue is either fish or cut bait. I haven’t decided what to do.”
It’s the ultimate Hobson’s choice. Stay healthy — but miss out on one of the great intellectual challenges of our time — or go and risk losing it all. “He talks about a new life, but it’s a veneer,” says O’Leary, his friend and former client. “He’s still 90% the old George. He’s doing it to the limit that he thinks he possibly can and get away with it.”
While Stalk was in the hospital, a doctor told him he’d used up nine of his nine lives. But it’s only cats that have nine lives. Consultants, George Stalk would like all of us to think, have 10.
Jennifer Reingold is a Fast Company senior writer.