Monthly Archives: March 2012

Andrew Hill

To attend my first Skoll World Forum in the same week as writing a column with the headline “We should stop trying to change the world” may be regarded as imprudent. The Skoll forum on social entrepreneurship, started nine years ago by eBay billionaire Jeff Skoll, probably has a higher quotient of delegates with that precise objective than any other conference on the planet.

What’s interesting is that it also has an increasing number of delegates from “big business”. There were none at the first forum, according to Pamela Hartigan, director of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at Oxford’s Said Business School. Yet she was on her way to lunch with more than 60 on Thursday, which she considers a positive sign. Read more >>

Andrew Hill

The problem with conventional wisdom is that academics will insist on testing whether it is truly wise.

So the popular assumption that Lehman Brothers would not have collapsed if it had been Lehman Sisters (to quote, among others, European commissioner Viviane Reding and former UK minister Harriet Harman) seems to take a knock from a new discussion paper published by Germany’s Bundesbank. It concludes:

Board changes that result in a higher proportion of female executives also lead to a more risky conduct of business.

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Given the essentially mundane nature of most jobs, few workers will ever live up to mission statements that urge them to “change the world”.

Vint Cerf is one of the few people who indisputably has changed it. Nearly 40 years ago, he co-designed the ubiquitous TCP/IP software protocols that allow closed computer networks to communicate with each other and form a “network of networks”: the internet.

Andrew Hill

Real Madrid says it has an estimated 300m fans globally, more than half based in Asia. So I shouldn’t be surprised that it wants to put its name to a $1bn theme park in the United Arab Emirates, closer to that growing fan-base.

Computer-generated image of Real Madrid Resort Island (AFP Photo / Real Madrid)

Even so, I worry that such hubristic brand-building projects – the chief executive of Real Madrid Resort Island describes it as “sportainment”, a term I dearly hope never catches on – could distance football clubs further from their roots. Read more >>

Andrew Hill

Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs’ biographer, has returned to the man and his idiosyncratic management style in a Harvard Business Review article outlining the 14 “real leadership lessons” of Apple’s late founder. (Number one: “Focus”.)

He addresses the fact that some readers of Mr Isaacson’s biography, rushed out last year shortly after Jobs’ death, “fixated” on the “rough edges of his personality”. Mr Isaacson implies that they were misunderstanding the true nature of entrepreneurship:

The essence of Jobs, I think, is that his personality was integral to his way of doing business. He acted as if the normal rules didn’t apply to him, and the passion, intensity, and extreme emotionalism he brought to everyday life were things he also poured into the products he made. His petulance and impatience were part and parcel of his perfectionism.

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Even if you have only half-heard of Gina Rinehart, you will know that she is a force to be reckoned with. She is the Australian mining magnate who controls Hancock Prospecting, founded by her father. Her aggressive approach to business and family relations has prompted three of her four children to sue her.

Andrew Hill

I’m getting fed up with the UK coalition government’s ritual invocation of Victorian values or visions whenever it wishes to urge a put-upon populace to new heights.

In David Cameron’s latest speech, the prime minister calls on the spirits of Brunel, Telford and Stephenson, to inspire new infrastructure investment in the UK, from nuclear energy to new towns. He accompanies nostalgia for the Victorian era with the inevitable negative comparison with other nations’ superior efforts: the French, Dutch and Swiss have cheaper, less crowded railways than the British; the South Koreans have faster broadband; the Indians have newer nuclear power stations; and the Chinese have bigger airports. Read more >>

Andrew Hill

It’s awkward enough having to hand back one leaving present from colleagues, let alone two. So I think we can all agree that, this time, Hector Sants will stick with his decision to resign as the UK’s chief financial regulator.

Mr Sants will step down as chief executive of the Financial Services Authority in June. The first time he announced his resignation – in February 2010 – he was persuaded to reverse the decision four months later by the incoming Conservative government. He agreed to preside over the transition to a new Bank of England-led regulatory regime (plans for which he’d opposed, as did I), in the expectation of becoming deputy governor. But things have changed.

In 2010, I wrote that Mr Sants had chosen the three worst years in history to run a regulator, taking over as chief executive just before the run on Northern Rock in 2007 and presiding over the watchdog in a year in which the rest of the UK banking system came close to outright collapse. I also wrote that his premature departure would destabilise the FSA. The first judgment still stands. The second – not so much. Read more >>

Tony Tassell

It is hard to believe now but there was a time before the credit crisis that the culture of investment banks had not always been linked to reckless greed and buccaneering.

Yes their darker dealings, regulatory failings and rising conflicts of interest were apparent to anyone with a passing familiarity with Wall Street or even the film of the same name. But there was also a positive side. Read more >>

To fly from New York to Beijing, as I did this week, is to enter a looking-glass world. Eight o’clock in the morning becomes the same time in the evening. One transfers from a country aggrieved at China to one aggrieved at the US.

Andrew Hill

To misquote from the work of Hanns Johst, the Nazi playwright: “When I hear the words corporate culture, I reach for my pistol.”

Few other management themes encourage as much cant and hypocrisy from companies, and as much waffle from those who study them. Yet a healthy corporate culture is vital to the well-being of most organisations. I’d go further and say that given the complexity of the largest multinationals – and the impossibility that their chief executives know what is happening in every corner of the companies they purport to run – the right culture is indispensable.

This is why Wednesday’s New York Times op-ed, in which Goldman Sachs’ Greg Smith resigns in spectacular fashion as executive director and head of the firm’s US equity derivatives business in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, is so interesting and – for Goldman – so potentially damaging. Read more >>

John Gapper

Greetings from the Central Party School of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing, the training college for the elite cadre of administrators, academics and politicians that run the country.

I am here for a seminar on China’s economic development organised jointly by Wilton Park, an independent agency of the UK Foreign Office that runs political and economic conferences, and the Central Party School. Not long ago, they would have seemed like unlikely bedfellows, but times have changed. Read more >>

Italians like to wear their qualifications where everyone can see them. Accountants style themselves Ragioniere, architects are always Architetto, and so on. Corporate chieftains whose business successes have long since overshadowed their academic achievements hang on to the handle: so Fiat’s Gianni Agnelli was always l’Avvocato, Carlo De Benedetti is still l’Ingegnere. I used to be rather proud to receive letters addressed to “Egregio Dott. Hill”, when I worked in Milan, until I realised protocol dictated that every university graduate was a Dottore or Dottoressa.

Andrew Hill

“Day by day Volkswagen… appears less like a public company, and more like a complex oligarchy.” That’s how The Economist began a critique of the German carmaker’s flawed corporate governance – in December 2005.

Not much has changed since, as the latest developments in Wolfsburg suggest. In spite of periodic protests about governance, Ferdinand Piëch, VW’s chairman, has reinforced his hold over the group and is expected to seek another five-year term in the chair. The latest news is that his wife, Ursula, will stand for nomination to the board. This may be, as the FT wrote on Sunday, part of “a fairly well-established tradition of spouses taking up powerful positions at German companies”, citing the board positions held by Friede Springer at Axel Springer, and Liz Mohn, at Bertelsmann. But to anybody outside this tradition of family-controlled companies, it looks distinctly odd. As Dow Jones pointed out in its account, “there are no reports…. that would suggest she has any high-profile corporate management experience“. Read more >>

John Gapper

I fear that the US Department of Justice is heading firmly into the territory of unintended consequences by threatening to sue Apple and five of the biggest US book publishers for colluding to raise the price of electronic books.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the Department of Justice is unconvinced by the arguments of book publishers, including Penguin, which is owned along with the Financial Times by Pearson. It is threatening to take action over their “agency” pricing model for ebooks.

I should note that I have an interest in all this since, as well as being a Pearson employee, I wrote an ebook last year which was published by Penguin and sold, among other places, on Amazon’s Kindle store.

I wrote about this issue in a column in December and concluded that eliminating agency pricing, under which publishers rather than ebook distributors, set the prices for their books, would reinforce Amazon’s dominance:

“If some publishers want to set ebook prices above the level Amazon prefers, that is fine providing they do not collude to fix prices and there are alternatives. There is little danger on the latter front – anyone can now become a publisher and new ones are springing up all the time. Amazon has itself become a publisher and displays its titles generously in the Kindle store.

“Minimum prices deals helped to erode Amazon’s initial dominance in ereaders by encouraging competition from B&N and others. Even so, the Kindle still accounts for 60 per cent of ebook sales. It is not the job of antitrust officials to hand Amazon back its monopoly.”

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