Wrong, wrong, wrong

Jun 07 2010 by Philip Whiteley Print This Article

In late 2005, Britain's then-Chancellor, Gordon Brown, announced that as part of a reduction in 'red tape', the planned Operating & Finance Review for listed companies would not be introduced. But while his unlamented government expanded considerable efforts to impose a sea of useless regulations on the economy, the Operating & Finance Review was not one of them. In fact holding onto it would have done the world a favour.

Why? Because it would have required fuller reporting of environmental risks and employee relations to complement the financial data that still makes up 99% of the dubiously titled 'annual report'.

It fitted with the age of the boom years, the last puff of the 20th Century cult of 'Total Shareholder Return' and the ludicrous pretence that 28-year-old analysts could assess a company based on quarterly results, giving no time to such girly subjects as relationships and green issues, piling pressure on oil companies to minimise costs in their supply chains.

Less than half a decade later, two of Britain's iconic companies risk complete collapse because of strategic failures in employee relations and managing environmental risk. BA and BP will very possibly lose every last penny of shareholder value because the cult of management means looking at the numbers rather than the real business.

I'm not exonerating the self-indulgent unions at BA for their ignominious role the point is a wider one. It is that the way you manage staff is at the heart of the business, not some sideshow.

Guiding a company using only quarterly results is like trying to sail solo round the world when the only navigational tool you have is a free magnetic compass that came with a "Look & Learn" annual.

Sadly, the toxic myths continue. Jeff Randall in the Telegraph on 4 June proudly noted that Goldman Sachs cites the top three list of operating principles as: 'People, capital and reputation.' This is a nonsense, because the second two are only by-products of the first.

Ultimately, people are the only asset a company possesses. The BP oil spill will be found to have been caused by human error. Drilling at a depth at which you cannot carry out repairs is a basic error, one that a child could have pointed out.

Indeed, I increasingly think that an intelligent 12-year-old should be on the board of every major company and central bank especially the European one. 'But Greece is a completely different country than Germany! It shouldn't really have the same currency,' you could hear them point out.

It's highly unlikely that the Operating & Finance Review would have prevented the crises at BA and BP. Even if required to report fully and accurately on their risks in employee relations and the environment, the bean counters in the investment community are trained to ignore them. It's a much bigger, cultural change that is needed. But it would have been a good first step. And yes, some of us did say so at the time.

Read more from Phil Whiteley at http://felipewh.wordpress.com


Older Comments

Ascertaining the environmental performance of potential suppliers for example can be problematic. Until the government does enforce environmental performance reporting we need to rely on certification to environmental standards, such as ISO 14001 as an indication of their attitude to environmental issues. Controlling organisations environmental risks is a re-requisite of the standard.

Lee Johnston www.lynwoodconsultancy.co.uk