This year’s awards were judged in the humble Observer offices, despite a temptation to hold a gala dinner at London’s Dorchester hotel on the date previously occupied by the now disgraced Presidents Club charity event.
The Observer’s only hat-tip to the defunct fundraiser, where men were the only guests and waitresses were forced to wear tight cocktail dresses, was that participants were permitted to sport a few skimpy little black numbers of their own – although they related solely to profit figures of nominated retailers.
So, without further ado …
The Fred Goodwin cup for the UK’s most despised businessman
This ended up as a straight shootout between two famous retailers.
First was Sir Philip Green, who was looking to add another victory in this category, having trashed his own image in previous years with his actions leading to the demise of BHS. His 2018 entry concerned his alleged involvement in a #MeToo scandal. Green “categorically and wholly denies” any suggestion that he was guilty of unlawful behaviour regarding the allegations, all the judges noted.
Second on the list was Ray Kelvin, the founder and boss of the fashion brand Ted Baker, who is in similar trouble regarding his alleged fondness for forced hugging as a form of corporate bonding.
The judges were split and the pair are being forced to share a hug – and the gong.
His and hers matching pewter money clips for gender equality
So with the old sexist business hierarchy finally looking like it might crumble, what the world of commerce needed was someone to show just how much better it would be if women were in charge. You know, a person to prove the “Lehman Brothers wouldn’t have happened if it was Lehman Sisters” type narrative.
Sadly, the world’s most famous female corporate executive during 2018 was Sheryl Sandberg, who as chief operating officer of Facebook is in day-to-day charge of a company that’s invaded more personal space than Ray Kelvin at a Halloween party. Still, her plan to turn around a difficult year for Facebook – by hiring, er, the former deputy prime minister Sir Nick Clegg – did at least show there are no insurmountable barriers to rising to the pinnacle of business. So Sandberg got the nod from the judges.
The Blankety Blank chequebook and pen for corporate excess
Despite a late run from Bet365’s Denise Coates (total pay of £265m last year, but it is her company), there could only be one winner.
Jeff Fairburn, the former boss of housebuilder Persimmon, will now be forever remembered for not only trousering a £75m bonus, but also being so clueless about how he might attempt to defend it that he terminated a local television interview when quizzed on the topic. All of which rather suggests that Fairburn was both (a) outrageously overpaid and (b) has no sense of humour.
The stainless steel cake slice for humble pie
One person who cannot be described as lacking a sense of humour is Luke Johnson, the entrepreneur-cum-business guru. His newspaper columns telling other people how to run their businesses have always seemed preachy, but this year he revealed them to be a rather good pre-emptive joke about his own business shortcomings, after a crisis at his cafe and cakes business Patisserie Valerie.
In September this year, less than a month before Patisserie Valerie revealed “potentially fraudulent” accounting irregularities, he used his column to draw up a checklist of warning signs indicating fraud.
Johnson ended up having to stump up £20m of his own fortune to plug a black hole he had managed to miss while penning advice to fans about how to spot them. Or, as he put it in his column: “It is much easier to disguise nefarious activities if you run a cash business.”
The Michael Fish crystal ball for foresight
This category, awarded to the business person most sensationally blindsided during the year, is often hotly contested, as commerce has a tendency to be staffed by people who look towards the financial upside.
But this year the committee thought there was a standout winner – who not only missed an impending catastrophe he was paid to spot but did so while so many in the financial industry saw it coming.
Philip Green – the other one, former chairman of the now bust construction and outsourcing group Carillion – appeared oblivious to what was happening to the company, despite the City openly betting that its shares would crash.
The aftermath of the collapse in January included a parliamentary inquiry at which Frank Field, the chair of the work and pensions committee, put Green’s claim to this gong neatly: “Carillion’s chair appeared to lack even a tenuous grasp on the reality of the company’s situation. Five days before the profit warning that heralded the firm’s public spiral into insolvency, Philip Green stands like the mayor of Pompeii – smoke billowing from the volcano behind him, lava cascading down the slopes – trumpeting the forthcoming revelries of the village fete. It is difficult to believe the chairman of the company was unaware of its position, but equally difficult to comprehend his assessment if he was.”
The Vito Corleone pocket knife for exacting revenge
In April, the WPP boss Sir Martin Sorrell resigned as chief executive of the advertising company he founded, before the conclusion of an investigation into alleged personal misconduct.
Weeks later details leaked, with reports of allegations that Sorrell had been spotted entering an address in Shepherd Market in the West End of London, where sex can be acquired – an incident supposedly witnessed months earlier by WPP colleagues drinking in a nearby wine bar.
Curiously, the front door that Sorrell allegedly entered is not visible from any Shepherd Market wine bar.
Still, Sorrell put it all behind him quite swiftly – by launching a competitor to WPP called S4 Capital. Incidentally, the WPP investigation found there was no proof of misuse of company money.
The Devon Loch horseshoe for self-inflicted fall
City types like to believe that competition gives customers what they want. It is a pillar of capitalism and applies pretty well universally except – just like cracking down on excessive pay – when it affects you.
This year brought another example, with the plan by Sainsbury’s and Asda to merge and create a supermarket controlling about 30% of the market. The companies reckon this reduction in competition will cause prices to come down – an impressively cheeky argument that immediately had customers making two obvious points.
First, it actually took a couple of German upstarts barging their way into the grocery market to remind the incumbents what competition on pricing really entails. Only when shoppers began defecting to Aldi and Lidl did Sainsbury’s, Asda, Tesco and the like suddenly find new – previously impossible – ways of cutting prices.
Second, if the motivation behind the tie-up is really consumers, you perhaps shouldn’t get filmed singing the 42nd Street number We’re in the Money while waiting for a television interview on the day the merger is unveiled. That was Sainsbury’s chief executive Mike Coupe’s contribution to selling this deal, for which he is now rightly honoured.