THE INDEPENDENT (UK): Jeremy Warner's Outlook: Gaffes, duds and scandal: a year that had it all: “The biggest challenge to Lord Black this year came from Sir Phil Watts, former chairman of Shell, so to him goes the special consolation prize of "Grandest Deception" of the Year..." (ShellNews.net) 30 Dec 04
30 December 2004
There is the usual burgeoning field of contenders for my annual City Oscars this year. The standard of entry remains exceptionally high, so those that go without a mention shouldn't feel aggrieved. Remember, it is the taking part which is important, not the winning.
So without further ado, on to my first award - Scoundrel of the Year - which for the second time in a row goes to Conrad Black. Last year, Lord Black of Crossharbour, as he used to be known, asked to be assumed innocent until he was proven guilty. Regrettably for him, I think we can now safely assume the case for the prosecution beyond reasonable doubt after he was found by the official report into the Hollinger affair to be guilty of "self-righteous and aggressive looting" of his company.
The behaviour of his wife, Barbara Amiel, was equally disturbing. A woman who by her own admission had "extravagance that knows no bounds", Lady Black regularly charged food, cellphones, perfume and other "routine" living expenses to the company. On one shopping expedition, she even expensed the tip she gave to the doorman.
The biggest challenge to Lord Black this year came from Sir Phil Watts, former chairman of Shell, so to him goes the special consolation prize of "Grandest Deception" of the Year for the breathtaking discovery that Shell had been overstating its reserves of oil and natural gas by more than one-fifth. With characteristic arrogance, Sir Phil attempted to pass this off as little more than a bookkeeping error. He even failed to host the press conference at which the disclosure was made, leaving it instead to his head of investor relations to explain events to an incredulous world. For this, he said later, he was "very, very sorry" - not for the deception, you understand, but for his absence from the press conference.
One of the characteristics of business leaders who fall from grace is that they can never admit to themselves the game is up. Sir Phil clung grimly to his position for a full two months after the announcement, and even then he had to be fired and given a £1m pay-off to persuade him to leave the building.
As ever, the search for Most Profane Statement of the Year was a long and painstaking business, made all the more difficult by the brilliance of the incumbent, Lee Amaitis, European President of Cantor Fitzgerald, who had reportedly described Icap's Michael Spencer as "a fucking fat greasy fuck". This was always going to be tough act to follow, though to be fair, there have been some heroic attempts. From Michael O'Leary's description of BAA as "a bunch of thieving rapists" to a take your pick array of expletive deletives from Philip Green, there was an impressive line-up of contenders.
After much deliberation, the judges eventually alighted on Richard Desmond, whose description of Jeremy Deedes, a mild mannered and courteous former journalist who returned briefly to run the Telegraph Group this year, as "a miserable piece of shit" also doubles as the most undeserved insult of the year. The Express proprietor made his remark after asking Mr Deedes if he was looking forward to being run by Nazis, an apparent reference to misguided speculation that the Telegraph titles were about to be sold to the German publishing group Axel Springer. Mr Desmond is then said to have goose stepped around the room in the manner of John Cleese in Fawlty Towers and urged his colleagues to break into a rendition of "Deutschland Über Alles". A spokesman for Mr Desmond later described the meeting as "businesslike and constructive".
Were his antics not so offensive, Mr Desmond would also have made the shortlist for Entertainer of the Year, but there was really only one possible winner in this category, standing head and shoulders above the rest - Philip Green. The Bhs boss's assault on Marks & Spencer had it all: betrayal, insider dealing claims, chicanery and high drama. And there in the centre of it all was this extraordinary human dynamo, cursing cajoling and bullying his way towards the object of his desires. If the one-time doyen of British retailing could have been won by force of will alone, Mr Green would have been there by a country mile. He was eventually defeated by his own caution, which prevented him from making a proper bid without a full examination of the books. That the M&S board was never likely to give him.
"I could have made you rich", he told Stuart Rose during a chance and bruising encounter on the pavement outside M&S's Baker Street headquarters - a reference to the fact that he had tried to make the former Arcadia boss part of his bid team but had been thwarted when Mr Rose had opted instead to join the defence as chief executive.
Still, the last laugh may have gone to Mr Green. After the battle had been lost, Mr Green paid himself hundreds of millions of pounds in dividends from Bhs and Arcadia. M&S is meanwhile said to have had a miserable Christmas.
Gaffe of the Year goes to Terence Mowschenson QC, one of the four members of the Financial Services & Markets Tribunal which was hearing the case of Paul " The Plumber" Davidson - not for something he said, but for something he did. After the first day of the hearing, Mr Mowschenson had been out late at night walking the dog when he bumped into his next door neighbour, Christopher Fitzgerald, then chairman of the Financial Services Authority's Regulatory Decisions Committee and the man ultimately responsible for hauling The Plumber up before the beak.
They then proceeded to have a lengthy conversation about the case, a course of action Mr Mowschenson must have known might be thought prejudicial. In any case, he was forced to resign over the affair, leaving the case in disarray.
Much disagreement on my panel of judges over the top slot for Sacking of the Year with Sir Peter Davis, former chairman of J Sainsbury, Sir Clive Thompson, former chairman of Rentokil Initial, and Richard North, former chief executive of InterContinental hotels, all jostling for position. Sir Ian Prosser, who was appointed chairman-in-waiting at J Sainsbury only to be unappointed a few days later, was also thought by some a strong contender, but I'm exercising my discretion as chairman of the panel to rule him out on the technicality that he never actually assumed the position.
Instead the prize goes to Mr North, though his award should perhaps carry the rider Most Perplexing Sacking of the Year. Having delivered on every target that had been set for him, and nearly doubled the share price to boot, Mr North was to be replaced by a complete unknown from Cadbury Schweppes. All very odd. To Sir Peter Davis goes instead the "Cedric the Pig" memorial prize for the Most Heinous Act of Corporate Greed - in his case insisting that the company largely stick to its contractual terms in the £3m pay-off he eventually received - this for presiding over a calamitous deterioration in the company's affairs.
Bill Gammell, the former Scottish rugby international who heads Cairn Energy, might have been a contender for Businessman of the Year but for his trading update of a few weeks back, which has instead turned him into "most predictable fall from grace". Up and up the shares had gone on growing excitement about prospects for oil finds on acreage bought from the luckless Shell. So exaggerated had expectations become, that the company could only disappoint, and so it has proved. Cairn's stay in the FTSE 100 is likely to be as short lived as summer snow.
So finally to my only serious award, Business Achievement of the Year. The list of high achievers is as long as ever, but there is one that stands impressively out from the pack, so much so that he is already a cliche in exercises of this sort. It's easy to see why. With the iPod, Steve Jobs has reinvented Apple, the desktop computer company he created more than two decades ago, and in the process he's helped save the record industry from the oblivion that "free" digital downloads threatened it with.
His technological and fashion lead may not last long. The Far East won't be far behind with a myriad of perfectly good rivals at a fraction of the price, but for the time being he's making hay. Over the past year, Mr Jobs has also survived surgery for pancreatic cancer and carried on as chief executive of Pixar, the computer graphics company behind the film, The Incredibles. Incredible stuff, but true.