One would expect the biography of the founder of an insurance rating company to be dry, if not tedious. But The Man, a Biography of Alfred M. Best does something remarkable: It makes the life of the businessman fascinating. It does this by deftly creating a sense of place for the action and by seamlessly weaving together the disparate components of Best’s complicated life.
In 1899, spurred on by the prevalence of fraudulent insurance firms that “profited off the trust of others,” Best devised an “insurance reporting” company. The company would study numerous factors, including an insurance firm’s “financial responsibility and projected future performance,” and, through reports, express “an opinion about the status of the financial strength” of the firm. Best’s methodologies blossomed into the “cornerstone of today’s credit rating industry.”
For his start-up, Best rented a “10-by-12” office next to an elevator shaft. Best could hear the “squeal and bang of elevator cables, and the whoosh of air as the cab rose and descended through the shaft.” The narrative tracks Best’s business as it expands, with Best hiring employees and acquiring subscribers through the years.
The book also follows Best as he marries and has three children, buys a small farm, an expensive house, and an office building. It fully explores Best’s darker periods when his finances fail and his second wife (associated with gangsters) dies under mysterious circumstances. And it describes Best’s estrangement from his first wife and sons, and the suicide of the eldest son.
It is this carefully documented presentation of the dark as well as the light that makes this biography so interesting. Delivered in lively language and with vivid settings, the story is accompanied by copious photographs and letters, giving readers acquaintance to a bygone age.
The Man should capture an audience well beyond readers in the insurance trade. Its articulate and insightful presentation will make it a welcome addition to any bookshelf.
Also available in hardcover and ebook.