“A slow dawning that most companies are run pretty badly”

Sarah Gordon has written a memorable reflection today on her 20 years writing for the FT.

She reflects on a career with the paper that started with writing about what were in the early years of the millennium breaking technologies but which have been mainstream for so long that we can’t imagine life before them, which continued through the years of the Financial Crash and the great depression and bull run that has followed.  She writes about the routine reports of company news stories and mind-numbing performance data, and the occasional more gossipy pieces that appear to have been what the readers found more engaging than the hard news.

She found clearing her desk brought back memories of the events and personalities that have filled the business and company pages of the paper of the past two decades, and anyone reading the article be a share in the trip down memory lane.

Reflecting on these years, she reaches very strong conclusions about shortcomings in governance in response to the accretion of overweening power at the heart of companies.  She cites Dick Fudd at Lehman Brothers.  He is an easy target, but her description of what went wrong is compelling: “board members neither delved deeply enough into the real activities of the bank, nor did they challenge the person running it sufficiently. Being on the Lehman board, it seemed, was a social honour rather than a fiduciary responsibility.”  Writing of people like Martin Sorrell, who spent 33 years at the top of WPP, she observes: “Business bosses who enjoy too long a tenure lose self-awareness. They become reluctant to promote people around them who will challenge their point of view. Meanwhile, questioning a boss who enjoys such stature becomes all but impossible, encouraging hubris, and leading to bad business decisions.”

Gordon reflects that such problems, with accompanying shortcomings in governance, are not restricted to the private sector.  She cites the example of Camila Batmanghelidjh and the failure of Kids Company in 2015.  I reflect also on the ignominious departure of Sir Leonard Fenwick would was finally dismissed for Gross Misconduct by the board of Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, where he had been chief executive since 1998 having previously led one of its predecessor organisations since 1992.

She also reflects on the poisonous value destruction in so many big corporate deals, which appear to be motivated by executive greed and supported by a flawed network of advisory institutions corrupted by perverse incentives.

Her time at the FT was a journey of personal discovery and growing disillusion (albeit one shared by most of in parallel in other parts of our lives) : “As a child, lucky enough to grow up in comfortable circumstances in London, I simply assumed that the world was run efficiently by the grown-ups. It has been a slow — and sometimes painful — dawning that in fact most companies are run pretty badly.”

Gordon is hardly less critical of other institutions, regulators and politicians.  She also appears to despair that the wider lack of economic and financial literacy, and the gullibility of much of the general public.  She suggests that a public that feels exploited and even robbed by corporate excesses does, in some part, have itself to blame.

But she stresses that it is not business itself, as opposed to individual businesses, to blame, but it is within the power of business to improve popular understanding and dispel the blame:

“Many businesses are badly run, but business is not bad. Most people running companies whom I have met over the past 18 years care about the people they employ. Most entrepreneurs believe that there is a purpose to running their company which is greater than just making money.

“The voices of big business, and the big business baddies, too often drown out the stories from the millions of small companies that make up the bulk of employers in the UK and across the globe. I’ve interviewed many of them in the past few years, in Scotland, outside Cambridge, in Bilbao and Munich. Many are family-run, on the second or third generation, focused on building sustainable businesses. Unlike the UK’s big supermarkets, gouging dairy farmers with ever lower milk prices, they have long and mutually dependent relationships with their suppliers. They look after their staff, turning apprentices into engineers and keeping people on their books during extended periods of illness.

“The popular caricature of business, filled with profiteering bankers and gig economy exploiters, simply does not reflect the reality. But it is up to business to dispel it.

“……  business needs to do more than change its culture. It must challenge itself on what its purpose really is, not just what its investors want. It must be prepared to tackle the great ills of our time, such as climate change or modern slavery. And it must be louder in explaining why it matters.”