The Royal Mail worker who rang my bell to deliver an Amazon package on Friday was wearing a glittery ball gown because she and her colleagues were fundraising for local hospitals: ‘Two thousand quid so far,’ she said cheerily as she accepted my donation and thanks. But if I had asked her what she thought of the performance of her ultimate boss Rico Back — chief executive of Royal Mail until his sudden departure after less than two years in the job — I suspect she might not even have recognised his name, so remote has this German-born, Swiss-resident big shot been from the front line of his organisation’s role in keeping us all in touch with each other during the lockdown. Back himself reportedly chose to sit it out from his ‘luxury penthouse’ in Zurich: the most colleagues had seen of him lately (a well-placed source tells me) was a talking head on Zoom ‘as if he was casting a Eurovision vote’.
But he was never going to have an easy run, having followed Dame Moya Greene, the modest Canadian who was praised for her dogged attempt to restructure postal services while keeping the strike-hungry Communications Workers Union at bay. He was damned from the start for the £5.8 million ‘golden hello’ that eased his move up from running Royal Mail’s GLS parcels business, the European arm of which he built and sold to the group — though he was never persuaded to move his home to London. He announced a £1.8 billion modernisation plan to turn Royal Mail into a world-leading parcels business but largely failed to deliver it, while the company’s shares fell to half its 2013 privatisation price.
Combine all that with a current slump in letter-post revenues and a rising threat level from the CWU, and you might think Back’s vacant office is not one any sane and ambitious executive would aspire to fill. On the contrary, I think it could be a great opportunity for a modern corporate thinker. To be fair to 66-year-old Back, he represented the breed of old-style results-driven chief that institutional shareholders thought they needed to make Royal Mail more efficient than competitors that were eating the best bits of its previous monopoly. But how often do you greet the satnav-reliant drivers of DPD or DHL as friends, the way you welcome the little red van of the local postie, whatever she’s wearing?
No other operator is woven into the social fabric and held in public affection as Royal Mail is — and that brand loyalty, re-inforced by current circumstances, ought to be an enormous advantage as e--commerce volumes continue to grow. Having looked like a lost cause when the profit motive was rampant, Royal Mail could re-emerge as a model company for the era of capitalism with social purpose.
Wealth creators will play a crucial role in the recovery ahead, so in one sense the Sunday Times might have trumpeted its annual Rich List last weekend rather than hiding it behind a subfusc cover and some spin about how the pandemic has wiped £54 billion off the collective fortune of its 1,000 occupants. There’s something to celebrate, after all, in the fact that three of the top five names — Sir James Dyson, Sir Jim Ratcliffe and the lesser-known Reuben brothers — are homegrown business-builders, rather than heirs, oligarchs and exotic wheeler-dealers who just happen to keep mansions here.
On the other hand, this probably wasn’t the year to have your PR people pester the list’s compilers (as I’m told many new-rich do) to insert your name as a form of bling or a way of impressing your bank manager. Working-from-home HMRC officials have ample time to Google the less familiar entries and work out how much tax they should be paying — while the Chancellor’s team surely won’t have overlooked the potential for a one-off ‘solidarity’ levy on the remaining total wealth count of £743 billion, perhaps even a hypothecated tax (which the nation in its present mood would certainly applaud) to pay for this year’s additional NHS spend.
Now would indeed be a good time to have your PR people big up how many jobs your businesses have sustained through the crisis and how much more you’re planning to give to charity. It’s striking that listed under the heading of ‘Coronavirus donations’ on the penultimate page of the supplement are only five out of those 1,000 names.
If we could hear the coronavirus coming, would it snarl and roar like a Kawasaki Ninja? That’s a question we’ve been asking in Yorkshire’s favourite biker destinations, including Hawes in Wensleydale and my own town of Helmsley. The point is that the populous region to the north of us, from the Cleveland Hills to the Tyne, has a Covid-19 infection rate roughly double that of our rural county: the hotspots of Sunderland, Gateshead and Middlesbrough are hotter than the worst afflicted London boroughs. And their bikers like nothing better than a weekend blast over the hills in our direction.
I don’t really blame them and I’m inured to the penetrating pitch of their engines as they decelerate into town. Newly released from captivity, they’re currently arriving in swarms to strut the marketplace in their leathers and, you might think, reboot our leisure economy. But no: only the grocers are open, not the cafés, pubs or B&Bs, and bikers typically buy no more than a canned drink and a pastry.
So our low-waged shop staff — who have worked through the lockdown and are far more exposed than returning primary school teachers might be — have just spent their weekend serving queues of sweaty blokes from Covid Central for takings of about £5 a head. I’m not saying farmers should block the roads with tractors, though that’s what many of my neighbours think. I’m just offering a glimpse of who’s really on the wrong end of what Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, using braver language than our own leaders, has called ‘the calculated risk’.