Business

“The managers have much pleasure in stating that the immense numbers who have travelled under their arrangements have been conducted in perfect safety — indeed in the history of the Midland Lines, no accident, attended with personal injury, has ever happened to an Excursion Train. In conducting the extraordinary traffic of this Great Occasion, the first object is to ensure safety, and that object has hitherto been most happily achieved.” (Thomas Cook poster for an 1851 trip to the Great Exhibition.)

Coming to San Francisco for the first time in a few years brings home how much it has been transformed. Whatever you call what is happening — a boom, a bubble or a flood of money into what was known as new technology before the “new” became redundant — has augmented the city’s reality.

When a group of wealthy investors compete with each other to buy an asset, surely they have a clear idea of its financial value? Jussi Pylkkänen, president of Christie’s, who on Monday night auctioned Picasso’s “Les Femmes d’Alger” (Version O) to an anonymous buyer for $179.4m, thinks they do.

Scottish nationalism figured prominently in the campaign for Thursday’s UK general election. But the first true act of independence could be a move by HSBC, a bank that has never been happy in London, back to Hong Kong. The Scots expatriate clan that founded and still heads HSBC is losing patience — a virtue it never possessed in abundance — with being taxed, ringfenced and unappreciated.

Berkshire Hathaway shareholders came out in record numbers to mark the golden anniversary of Warren Buffett’s control of the company but the celebratory atmosphere did not stop some tough questions being put. Mr Buffett was prompted to full-throated defence of partner 3G’s management practices. in a reminder that, for his folksy charm and liberal values, Mr Buffett remains a capitalist through and through..

 

This has not been a salutary week for European corporate governance. At Volkswagen in Germany and at Industrivärden in Sweden, a system intended to encourage stability and long-term growth has instead created self-indulgence.

When it comes to management challenges, fish fingers and circuses are at opposite extremes: one product is the acme of industrialised food processing, the other the ultimate expression of human creativity and energy. Somehow, private equity has found room for both: last week, Permira agreed to sell Iglo, which makes Birds Eye fish fingers in Europe, after nine years running the frozen foods company, while another buyout group, TPG Capital, led a deal to gain control of Montreal’s Cirque du Soleil.

Deutsche Bank is the last heavyweight contender. While the other European investment banks — Barclays, UBS and Credit Suisse among them — retreat to retail and private banking amid investor discontent and a regulatory squeeze, it is doing the opposite. It wants to become more like Goldman Sachs, not less.

Entrepreneurs tend to see regulation as the enemy of innovation and progress.
But while it is true that watchdogs can struggle to keep pace with fast-changing markets and to comprehend technology companies’ novel ways of working, it is hardly surprising they sometimes resort to random barking.

Like previous student-led boycotts of tobacco companies and banks with operations in South Africa, the global fossil fuel divestment campaign is rumbling into action. With high profile backing from the Guardian newspaper and a student blockade of the university administration at Harvard this week, its supporters want to cripple the world’s oil and gas companies by striking where it hurts — at their finances.

If you have read a new business book, done executive training or attended a leadership summit recently, you have probably seen a slide, diagram or animation of the human brain.

By stepping into the furore over Indiana’s religious freedom law, in defence of gay rights, Tim Cook is boldly taking Apple where companies have been wary about going before. But he is not the only US business leader advocating for a deeply-held personal belief — so have Marc Benioff of Salesforce.com on the same issue, and Howard Schultz of Starbucks on racial discrimination and violence.

Steve Jobs’ acolytes say Becoming Steve Jobs paints a more fitting picture of the Apple founder than Walter Isaacson’s “authorised” 2011 life. Most neutral readers who plough through another 435 pages of Jobsiana, will neither know nor care. But the battle of the bios will have been worth it if it sounds the death-knell for the worst of all management memes: the leadership lesson listicle.

Andrew Hill

Self-manager: Zappos' Tony Hsieh  © Zappos

When I first wrote last year about Zappos’ efforts to introduce a self-managing system called Holacracy, I said that for most companies to adopt such an approach would take “time, a leap of faith and an act of unusual self-effacement by their leaders”.

An extraordinary memo from Tony Hsieh, chief executive of the Amazon-owned online shoe retailer, has underlined just how difficult it is. In the memo, published by Quartz this week, Mr Hsieh says that in the face of potential resistance, the company is now going to take a “rip the bandaid” approach to accelerate its progress towards self-management.

Quartz reports that some of the things I predicted would be stumbling blocks — confusion about the absence of titles, defection of staff — have already affected the transition. Mr Hsieh is not giving up; indeed he’s offering severance packages to staff who are not comfortable with the new approach. The fact that a chief executive has to order a change to a system with no chief executive is only one of the apparent contradictions here.

 Read more

Andrew Hill

It’s reasonably well-known that WPP stands for Wire & Plastic Products, the wire basket manufacturer that Sir Martin Sorrell chose 30 years ago as a vehicle for his plan to build a global advertising and marketing business. Wire & Plastic Products, operating from an industrial estate in Hythe, Kent, is still part of the group.

Wire & Plastic Products’ pre-history is a little more obscure. In researching my recent FT Magazine profile of WPP’s chief executive, I dug out the FT advertisement for the flotation of the original company in April 1971. Read more

The San Francisco trial pitting Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, one of Silicon Valley’s oldest and most venerable venture capital firms, against Ellen Pao, a former junior partner who claims that she faced sexual harassment and discrimination, has forced an institution that prefers to remain private into the public gaze. Among other things, it has raised questions about how well John Doerr, its de facto leader, knows his own firm.

After Etsy revealed its plans to go public on March 4, discussion forums for sellers using the online craft marketplace ignited with a mixture of those two great stock market emotions: fear and greed.

On the 50th anniversary of Berkshire Hathaway, the investment fund-cum-industrial conglomerate that now employs 341,000 people and is the fourth most valuable company in the US, the question is: is Warren Buffett inimitable? Or could the Sage of Omaha be cloned?

Stuart Gulliver’s crisp explanation this week of why he once held his annual bonuses in a Swiss private bank account via a Panamanian company was plausible yet somehow more puzzling than if he had been evading tax.

Adam Jones

  © Henrik Sorensen/Getty

Remember those days when long-haul flights were sometimes only a half, or even a third full? The joy of sprawling out across four seats in economy for the original “flat bed” experience?

Airlines’ use of technology to manage their flights more efficiently has largely killed that 20th-century pleasure. I’ve struggled to count more than a handful of empty seats on most of the flights I’ve been on in recent years.

Now “big data” seems to be on the cusp of streamlining many other workplaces in a similar fashion — with consequences for workers that go far beyond a mere bad night’s sleep.

The latest edition of Harper’s magazine picks up on the growth of labour scheduling software in business, which, by matching shifts to demand more accurately, is helping to make sure businesses are not overstaffed. If only it stopped there. Read more