You might recall a column I once wrote about a party at the Wallace Collection. It took place in late 2008, the host was the US investment bank Morgan Stanley, and I compared the assembled financiers — who saw the crisis then raging as just one more opportunity to make money out of volatility in markets that were bound to swing round again — to the circle of dancers in Poussin’s ‘Dance to the Music of Time’, which hangs in the Great Gallery there. Far-fetched perhaps, but I have a weakness for allegories.
On a pre-Christmas visit to the Wallace, I found the gallery splendidly refurbished and re-hung. The ‘Dance’ — like the banking sector — is in a different place but still emitting the same signals. So is ‘The Laughing Cavalier’, Frans Hals’s 17th-century version of a FTSE fat cat. But the work that really caught my eye in the new arrangement was a French bronze, circa 1700, titled ‘Allegory of Time witnessing the Triumph of Honour, Probity and Prudence over Vice’. The unknown sculptor did not indicate how long Time had to wait — but in the financial world, I fear it will take more than one new year.
Getting the basics right
My call for nominations of major companies that ‘get the basics right’ has finally yielded fruit. Responses were mostly based on personal experience as a customer, rather than holistic overviews, but it’s always interesting to hear — and un-nominated competitors should note — what makes you feel positive. Online white-goods retailer AO.com, for example, was praised for ‘micro-managing delivery to within one hour’, easyJet for ‘communicating well if there’s a problem’ and plastics manufacturer Lakeland for being simply ‘so efficient they should be running the country’. Pension provider Standard Life scored well for ‘clear advice with due regard to ethical responsibilities’ and HSBC for ‘efficient call centres, smooth online banking: the contrast with NatWest could not have been greater’. There were broader appraisals for Sainsbury’s (‘responsive to customer feedback… never had a horsemeat problem’), pub chain J.D. Wetherspoon (‘pays loads of tax, pays a divi… encourages responsible drinking’) and foods-to-detergents giant Unilever for its profile in poorer countries (‘never pays bribes to corrupt governments… pays suppliers well’).
Mentioned in despatches were Apple, stockbroker Hargreaves Lansdown, motor dealer Inchcape, National Grid, Vodafone and Waterstones; more controversially, by an industry insider but not a PR person, Shell and BP. Among small ventures nominated (not quite what I asked for) I liked the sound of AnyVan, a website that matches delivery customers to vans with spare capacity. Oh yes, and one true Spectator spirit named no companies at all but took the opportunity to lament my incorrect use of the subjunctive. We love you, readers: keep the correspondence flowing.
At this season I habitually look back, wearing my obituarist’s cap, at the year’s roll-call of notable departures from the business world. In one round-up, they were all quiet men with safe hands; in another, noisier and feistier. 2014’s crop was varied in character but remarkable for longevity.
Monty Moss of Moss Bros was an arbiter of style who, at 90, counted as a youngster of the cohort. Warren Anderson, chairman of Union Carbide at the time of the gas leak at its Bhopal factory which caused thousands of deaths, spent the last 30 of his 92 years as a fugitive from Indian justice. Financier Sir Ronnie Grierson was noisy and feisty to the end, which came at 93. Reclusive Lidl co-founder Karl Albrecht was 94. Fleming’s chairman Bill Merton, wartime assistant to Churchill’s confidant Lord Cherwell, reached 96; as did the Bank of England’s Sir Jasper Hollom, saluted in this column, and Sir Maurice Hodgson, who conquered near-blindness to be a reforming chief of ICI. On the basis that age is a receding barrier, my man to watch for 2015 is David Rockefeller, the doyen of American banking, who will be 100 in June.
Top tips for 2015
Like many people who pontificate about money, I’m a pretty hopeless manager of my own. I have sold out of the London property market twice in my life — a neat little flat in 1992, an inherited house in 2007 — when holding on would have multiplied my net worth. One new venture I invested in last year went under within weeks of its opening party. Still, as Reggie Perrin’s boss CJ might have said, didn’t get where I am without throwing advice around, so here’s a handful of random New Year tips.
If you’ve got some spare cash, pick a start-up to back: despite my recent mishap it’s fun, it’s creative and it’s what this economy desperately needs. If you’ve got lots of spare cash, back three or four start-ups in different sectors, digital or otherwise: one might make you a fortune. If you’ve got a serious pile of spare cash, pick a cause dear to your heart and give it a handsome donation: I guarantee you’ll feel richer. But even if you’re sitting on a cash mountain, have no truck with ‘virtual currencies’: I predict you’ll hear lots more about them in 2015 — but when they crash, as these half-baked, internet-wacko creations surely must, there’ll be no bailout and plenty of I-told-you-so.
Finally, if you’re self-employed or a small business owner, hound your debtors remorselessly — and if you’re the financial controller of a big business, start paying your creditors more promptly. Late payment is the bane of modern commercial life, and when the debtor is large, the creditor small and the interest rate low, it is petty meanness verging on immorality: £1,000 owed to a writer by Mega Publishing Inc or to a farmer by PriceSlasher Supermarkets represents a gain to the non-payer of about £2 a month. Let our slogan for 2015 be: pay up, you miserable bastards.