Worse, if you are regularly described as one of the Big Four, Five or Six in any business sector, you are probably already in the sights of regulators and lawmakers.
This demonisation of corporate girth is nothing new. I can’t find a source for this image – which Marc Gunther uses to illustrate a blogpost about the growing power of US big business – but I’d say it dates from the first half of the last century, and there are plenty more where it comes from.
Short of regulatory action, the only solutions to bigness are break-up – which an increasing number of conglomerates, Tyco being the latest, are trying – and disguise. Few big companies describe themselves as big – the preferred epithet is “leading” – whereas small companies love to boast about being the biggest fish, even if they have to identify a tiny pool for themselves in order to make the claim credible.
The latest politician to inveigh against bigness is Chris Huhne, Britain’s energy minister, who has rallied his Liberal Democrat colleagues with a promise to “get tough with the big six energy companies to ensure that the consumer gets the best possible deal”.
(For the record, he’s talking about Scottish Power, nPower, EDF Energy, Scottish and Southern Energy, E.ON UK and British Gas, part of Centrica.)
Now, I’m as worried as anyone about the formation of oligopolies. I suspect that part of the reason why British energy users don’t exercise their right to switch suppliers as frequently as they could (another Huhne bugbear) stems from cynicism about what look like repeated price rises by the Big Six.
It’s not, however, the weight of big companies that should mark them out as villains, but the way they throw it around.
Some business academic should really look at when and why companies cross the line between “ambitious but popular” and “big and bad”. As Mr Huhne himself concedes in the same speech, the aspiration to greater size can be laudable. He casts an envious eye at China “with six of the biggest renewable companies in the world” (though let’s see how they’re characterised by politicians when they start to mount bids for European peers). He also plans to “encourage new small companies to come into the [UK energy] market” by “cutting red tape so they can grow bigger”. At which point, presumably, a future government will look to cut the new Big Six or Seven down to size.