There has been a recent suggestion that Sir Philip Green, subject of a new, critical biography, is the last of the colourful tycoons. One would beg to differ. The current crop are every bit as exciting and intoxicating as previous generations that included Green’s business hero Sir Charles Clore, Sir Isaac Wolfson, Sir James Goldsmith, Lord Weinstock et al.
All were in different ways outsiders who left an indelible mark on British commerce and life.
The current crop are equally prominent and high profile in all that they do. The founder of advertising group WPP, Sir Martin Sorrell, has long hogged the headlines. Aside from building a FTSE100 giant, Sorrell established himself as an international commentator available to anyone who sought views on the digital economy, world growth and much more. If anyone thought his ignominious departure from WPP after 33 years at the top was the end of the saga, they should think again. Old tycoons and ‘outsiders’ who have made it to the top don’t retreat. Defiance and confidence is part of their make-up, hence his determination to rebuild.
Then there is the boss of London-quoted mining and commodities trading group Glencore Ivan Glasenberg. Earlier this month, Glasenberg attracted the attention of the US Justice Department, which is on a fishing expedition to know more about the company’s dealings in three troubled territories in which it operates: the Democratic Republic of Congo, Venezuela and Nigeria. Clearly, the search for information under the America’s Foreign Corrupt Practices Act is serious. It was enough to wipe 10 percent or billions of pounds off Glencore’s shares in one day. It also put the company’s dealings with Israeli-Africa businessman Dan Gertler in the spotlight.
A lesser figure than Glasenberg might have faded under pressure. His response was to cheer up investors by starting a $1bn buyback of the company’s own shares in a vote of confidence in its ability to withstand the assault.
The headlines clearly were unwelcome, but it is worth noting that the clampdown on bribery that Glencore now faces is not confined to the Swiss-based group. Almost all the big mining firms, including older establishment firms such as Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton, have faced similar problems with the authorities. Even the most hallowed name in British business, Rolls-Royce, has been forced to settle with Britain’s Serious Fraud Office after an investigation into bribes and corrupt practices across the world.
There is little doubt that after the financial crisis of a decade ago, a new, more puritanical culture has descended upon business.
Corporate titans are also held up to new ill-defined standards on gender equality, behaviours towards employees and business associates not helped by the stain of Harvey Weinstein and the Hollywood allegations.
Fortunately, the media generally handles tales of businessmen in difficulty in a more sensitive way than in the past. Members of our community who relish the corporate success and philanthropy of our brethren always feel unease when allegations hit the headlines.
But it is worth remembering that although Jews are very good at identifying with our own, much of this is a non-event for non-Jews more interested in the scandal that the ethnic background of the person making the waves.
Occasionally, a photo from a family celebration or lavish party gives the game away, but the media has become more careful about this in an age when it is too easy to revert to racists stereotypes. But when an unwanted picture does creep through, such as that of Israeli Dan Gertler in the Financial Times last weekend wearing a very distinct black kippah, there is a sinking feeling.
As a financial journalist, a large part of my job is about rooting out and exposing the less wholesome side of enterprise. But unseemly behaviour is not confined to people in kippot. Indeed, when companies and individuals hit a bad patch, it is also worth considering the huge efforts involved in creating great business and the jobs, profits, exports and services that benefit the many.