This is the story of a boy who barely escaped the Jewish holocaust during Hitler's reign/World War II - due to sheer luck, worked his way up in the world to become a billionaire - ultimately resulting in one of the best rags-to-riches stories, albeit riddled with controversies.
The book fairly follows a linear pattern of narration with the early chapters quickly covering Rich's early life - that of his escape from Europe with his parents, how they ends up in America, his internship and early work experience at Philipp Brothers.
A large section of the book is devoted to Marc Rich's work experience at Philipp Brothers both in America and outside of it, the reasons leading up to his setting up his own company, his very successful oil, metals and minerals trading business, the various controversies surrounding him and a small section about his personal
life towards the end, finally rounding the narrative off with where he is today, his philanthropic efforts and his views on the future of commodities trading.
The very first thing, the reader notices is that Ammann has written this biography in a typical "on the fence" style - neither condemns nor commends Marc Rich - he simply tells the story of Marc Rich and lets the reader draw their own conclusions.
That is one of the biggest positives of this book - now for the one flaw: for some reason, certain events from Rich's life are repeated several times over throughout the book, which is annoying at several places while reading.
That said - this book is different in the sense that it not just talks about the life of Marc Rich but also about the various real historical contexts of the 1970s-80s and ground realities in which he had to operate in. The way oil was traded in those days, the oil cartel of 7 companies nicknamed "the seven sisters", the way metals and minerals were traded, establishing crucial contacts especially with the governments of various countries etc.
Did you know that back in the days, many government officials would not sign contracts if they were not "suitably rewarded" (bribe/kickbacks in other words)!!! This is just the top layer; scratch deeper and you will be shocked to know how barbaric our world was even while we were growing up.
I am sure it still is, in some parts of the world even today but I am hopeful of a better tomorrow...
Back to the book - while it gives a very detailed insight into the life of Marc Rich, especially his business empire, the author also explains in detail various political, historical and economic realities of several countries in which March Rich + co or any of its subsidiaries conducted business in, during these decades.
The book also helps us understand the life of a commodities trader during these decades - which, I suspect hasn't changed much today except for a larger intervention of technology which in turn has enabled to move things faster. Apart from that a commodities trader still has the same type of business pressures and stress to deal with today as well. The immense network of connections a commodities trader has to build across several streams such as – Political, business, legal etc is just mind boggling. No wonder they make up such a large chunk of behind-the-scenes “movers and shakers” of the world. Marc Rich was no different, his network didn’t just help build his business empire, it also influenced world politics!
It is for these types of factual learning’s (across areas - Historical, political, and geographical, people/celebrities, business/commerce etc) from other peoples’ lives that I love reading biographies; one tends to unconsciously imbibe so many facts without trying to.
The biggest learning for me personally is - the life of a commodities trader. A commodities trader is just doing business to make money just like anyone else but more often than not they are forced (due to extraneous circumstances) to look at a deal through an ethico-moral lens rather than looking at it as a mere business deal. It takes courage and unique out-of-the-box thinking style to come up with innovative ways to clinch the deal and make it a win-win situation for all parties involved – and this exactly the area where Marc Rich excelled, especially in crises-ridden and war torn situations. And it is also exactly why he was termed an opportunist and “the biggest devil”.
On the other hand - the book also provides interesting insights into how people in certain government and non-government agencies build their careers off controversies surrounding wealthy people. And how there are those who deliberately let things blow out of proportion just so they can draw mileage for their own careers.
I am going to let you read the book and find out for yourself about the controversial legal case against Marc Rich and the final pardon by President Bill Clinton's administration after two almost decades - which is what made Marc Rich so famous in the first place. There are SO MANY interesting deals Rich/his firm has managed to clinch in highly sensitive political situations across countries that this book is worth a read for just that. Not to mention how Rich actually managed to help the very government in a delicate political matter whilst another of its department was desperately trying to capture him!
About the private lives of the Riches - although there is a dedicated section on this, towards the end of the book, little anecdotal pieces about their private life is sprinkled throughout the book which helps keep the reader interested along the way.
There are very few who can lift themselves up from nothing to being multi-billionaires and it is always a pleasure to read such heroic stories. The fact that these are real people we are reading about adds just that perfect little bit of spice to the whole reading experience.
And with the explosive combination of a controversial subject like Marc Rich with the superb penmanship of Daniel Ammann, the reader is left with an aroused ambition to throw caution to the winds and embark upon one's own fairy tale rags-to-riches story. Yes, we are repeatedly made aware of the risks and the not-so-honest methods employed to achieve this but the final after-taste when we close the book is one of being completely motivated to get out there and do something to become known or famous (or infamous depending on which lens you are viewing Rich's life from). Either way one is forced to look at one's own life, re-evaluate and act - even if it is only for a brief while before habitual lethargy sets in.
Worthy quotes from the book:
“Life doesn’t always play out according to preconceived notions; life isn’t always what it seems”
“... the commodities traders...make do with some middle way between a sense of reality and self deception. Sometimes they look reality in the eye, but sometimes they would rather forget about it. They live in a gray area....The name for this gray area is capitalism”
“He (Marc Rich) perfected trading methods precisely because he was willing to push the boundaries and break taboos”
Verdict: An exciting read about a scintillating personality who would rather have remained out of the limelight