One chapter begins with Grandpa's story of a mine owner who believed that blasting his way through the earth indiscriminately, rather than paying attention to tell-tale signs of coal veins in the walls, was the way to mine more coal. He furiously used more dynamite and dug more earth and rock out of the ground than his competitors. His competitors, however, continued to mine more coal.
The business lesson is that companies often make the attempt to “outgrow losses.” These companies, write Sutton, don't realize that more revenues does not necessarily mean more profits — a mistake that even a giant such as Time-Life/Warner has made. Sutton urges companies to fix profits first, and then add business. Acquiring more unprofitable customers and more unprofitable products is like blasting more unprofitable holes in the ground: much more work, but the bottom line is still hurting.
Other lessons in Sutton’s book include: debt’s a killer; fools fly blind; any decision beats no decision; and markets grow and markets die.
At the end of the book, Sutton reveals that Grandpa is actually a composite figure based on both of his grandfathers and a coal-mining family he knew. Corporate Canaries thus gets uncomfortably close to parable territory, but at least the lessons in the book are insightful, the author has a long and successful track record of turning around companies (he is not, in his own words, “an overpaid consultant who's never met a payroll or some tenured professor with untested theories”), and there are no talking animals!