‘Always frightfully keen on the money,’ mutters a City grandee who watched Stephen Hester build his career at Credit Suisse, Abbey and British Land before taking over the helm of the sinking Royal Bank of Scotland from Sir Fred Goodwin. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong (let’s remember) in wanting to prosper alongside your shareholders. But as I wrote in July 2009, hiring a troubleshooter for RBS whose first instinct was to negotiate his own £1.2 million salary and £6 million share package was a missed opportunity ‘to set a public benchmark for more moderate City pay scales, which most of us believe are essential to long-term stability in the financial sector’. Now he’s said to be resisting pressure to waive a £1 million share bonus, and it’s clearly far too late to revert to my proposal that he should be paid a public servant’s salary of £212,500 a year — the sum Goodwin reluctantly surrendered from his giant pension — plus a gong at the end if he’s done a good job.
I have always argued that provocatively high boardroom pay will notch downwards only through a combination of market forces and enlightened, self-denying examples, rather than grandstanding by Vince Cable. It’s far more important that Hester should accept less now than he might once have thought was his due — given that economic conditions are so much worse, and RBS so far from recovery — than that Sir Fred should be humiliated by the confiscation of his gong. The Prime Minister’s referral of the Goodwin knighthood to a ‘forfeiture committee’ is a cheap ploy to wrong-foot Ed Miliband, and he ought to be ashamed of it. But he also ought to have Stephen Hester locked in a windowless room until he agrees to take one for the team.
Bounder on trial
If there’s a banker’s knighthood that really does deserve to be withdrawn, it’s the one awarded in 2006 to Texan-born Allen Stanford, whose trial on charges of running a $7 billion ‘Ponzi scheme’ has opened in Houston. Stanford used to claim the award was made personally by the Earl of Wessex on a visit to Antigua, but in fact it came from the island’s governor-general in recognition of Stanford’s investments in local projects — funded, prosecutors allege, by depositors in the fraudulent Stanford International Bank. Over here, ‘Sir Allen’ is best remembered as the moustachioed bounder who landed his helicopter at Lord’s and leapt out with a Perspex box said to contain $20 million — the jackpot he was offering for a series of
Twenty20 cricket matches between England and his own Stanford Superstars. Amazingly, the English cricket authorities took him seriously. With his fantasy CV and his ménage of ‘outside wives’, Stanford’s courtroom performance should prove a lot livelier than that of the Ponzi world record-holder, the disappointingly dull Bernie Madoff. We need something to lighten the laughter-free business news these days.
‘Never mind the John Lewis economy, the model must be the Wine Society,’ says an email from my distinguished predecessor, Christopher Fildes. Last week I lamented the paucity of employee-owned firms that fit Nick Clegg’s new-found ideal of fairer capitalism — so I’m delighted to raise a glass to this flourishing mutual enterprise, whose list has been keeping its customer-owners happy since 1874, when it was founded to market wines left in the cellars of the Albert Hall after that year’s Great Exhibition. The Society trades only with its members, who own one share each. In its last financial year, turnover showed a healthy increase despite falling booze sales nationally and steep rises in wine excise duty; ‘establishment costs’ were down by a fifth partly thanks to energy efficiency; and a 6 per cent dividend was paid. Meanwhile, 12,000 new members brought the total to 106,000. As Christopher adds, ‘Can this be what David Cameron meant by the Big Society?’
The forager economy
At a low point of the mid-1990s I wrote a rather poetical essay about car-boot sales as a metaphor for the listless condition of the British economy. The proliferation of ‘pound shops’ might serve that purpose today, had I not observed a much more enterprising phenomenon: the craze for foraging. This is of course very largely due to the influence of television. Just as children of the 1980s acquired Australian accents from Neighbours, and the high-tech detective series NCIS made the next generation want to be criminologists, now Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and his crew (with incursions by Jamie and the Hairy Bikers) have got the nation hunting for berries, fungi and things that live on the seashore.
One of my local hostelries, the Pheasant at Harome, now offers days out with ‘professional forager Miles Irving’ — and several responses to my New Year appeal for promising start-up businesses echo the theme. ‘My 16-year-old son picks wild garlic and nettles and sells them to London restaurants,’ boasted one reader. Another cited the Sea-Spice Co., a venture by two ladies who collect seaweeds such as dulse and sea lettuce ‘in Celtic waters’ and sell them as dried seasonings. A third sent news of an intrepid, industrial-scale effort to commercialise nature’s bounty: Vementry Aquaculture, a mussel farm in remote Shetland which has just produced its first 30-tonne harvest, ‘notwithstanding Christmas gales’. All you need is a sea-bed lease from the Crown Estate and sufficient cashflow to let your first mussels grow undisturbed for three summers.
As a response to hard times, all this is encouragingly energetic, optimistic and green — ‘It’s how our ancestors survived droughts and crop failures,’ says a neighbour who turns out to be a forager on the quiet. It’s certainly more admirable than sitting in a field trying to sell broken table-lamps and vinyl records. Perhaps we really are in a better place than we were 15 years ago. More new ventures next week.