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Book Review: The Toothpaste Millionaire by Jean Merrill
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Book Review: The Toothpaste Millionaire by Jean Merrill - Executive Leadership Articles

Book Review: The Toothpaste Millionaire by Jean Merrill

Executive Leadership Articles

Book Review: The Toothpaste Millionaire by Jean Merrill

The ability to explain a difficult subject to young people is one of the surest tests of a person’s understanding. Sure, you can set up complicated tables with conditional formatting in Excel, but can you teach fifth-graders to do it?

Similarly, when a complicated subject is explained well in a book for young people, it can serve as a useful and inspiring reminder that sometimes the most complex issues can be boiled down to their essences. This is why Jean Merrill’s The Toothpaste Millionaire (Houghton Mifflin, 1972) is so impressive. In telling the short tale of a boy and girl who turn the simple idea of homemade toothpaste into a million dollars, Merrill walks us from inspiration through development, product, sales, marketing, expansion, and competition, all the way to a (probable) million dollars.

“My father always says one thing leads to another. It certainly does. I started out to buy a friend a birthday present, and I end up trying to get a factory to go with it,” says Kate MacKinstrey, the story’s narrator. The friend, a bright and inquisitive boy named Rufus Mayflower, is appalled at the price of toothpaste. He remembers that a relative once talked about using baking soda as toothpaste, so he mixes up a jar. Pleased with the results, Rufus tinkers with flavors (spearmint is a no-brainer, but what about something like curry?), testing them on Kate and on members of his family.

Rufus does the math and figures he can profit by selling a year’s worth of toothpaste for the price of one store-bought tube, but increased demand and his impractical packaging (baby-food jars are not quite as easy as toothpaste tubes), lead him to sell stock in his company in order to move his operation into a factory. People begin to notice, and when he appears on a local television program, his sales skyrocket. Since he’s still shipping twelve tubes to each customer for the price of one store-bought tube, his competition loses twelve sales each time Rufus gains a new customer. Big Toothpaste begins to take him seriously, and Rufus is the target of intimidation by very unfriendly rivals.

As literature, Merrill’s story is on the north side of pretty good. Language is simple but not especially elegant, and the author tells a fascinating story, touching also on themes of problem-solving, friendship, and race, as well as multiple issues of entrepreneurship and free enterprise. As a breakdown of basic business development, it borders on genius. The audience is young readers, but grown-ups will recognize a lot of nuanced detail that will fly right past children, such as the involvement of the media, the behavior of consumers, and the tactics of Rufus’s competition.

The problem with a lot of reading assigned in office spaces is that it’s so bookish. A cynic might suspect that in order to justify the price on the cover, a business-related book is loaded with stuff to give it physical heft, even when the content isn’t hefty at all. The Toothpaste Millionaire takes the opposite strategy, and the result is a book many teams will actually enjoy reading together. True, it’s a children’s book, but this is its strength. In its simple narrative and manageable length, it packs an enormous punch, teaching without preaching while reminding us of the essential concepts we manage to complicate on a daily basis. Highly recommended for managers and teams of any age.


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Book Review: The Toothpaste Millionaire by Jean Merrill - Executive Leadership Articles

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