Business blunders what went wrong in 2023?
“The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.” Henry Ford
The end of the year is almost upon us. In the spirit of festive redemption, Karl West takes a look back at some of the more mystifying corporate, executive and boardroom decisions made in 2023.
One of the biggest business blunders of the year was the scandal-hit Post Office awarding £1.6m in bonus payments to executives.
The organisation is in the middle of a statutory Inquiry into the Horizon IT scandal – a scandal that spans more than two decades and saw more than 700 Post Office branch managers and staff wrongly convicted of theft and false accounting. It has been described as “the most widespread miscarriage of justice in UK history”.
The Post Office board, inexplicably, came up with the bonus scheme, which rewarded senior executives for co-operating with the Horizon Inquiry – a move that was met with opprobrium by campaigners, politicians and the head of the Inquiry.
The organisation was forced to admit it had made mistakes in its handling of the process and 33 employees voluntarily handed back a total of £64,252 in bonuses awarded in relation to a specific sub-metric linked to co-operating with the Inquiry.
In August 2023, Nick Read, chief executive, said he would return all of his bonus payment for work related to the Horizon Inquiry – a sum of £54,400.
‘Bonusgate’ was a sobering reminder of what can go wrong when the whole board, including the remuneration committee and the senior independent director fail to see what should be blindingly obvious.
Bernard Looney resigned as chief executive of BP in September after less than four years in the top job for failing to fully disclose details of past personal relationships with colleagues.
In May 2022, the board investigated allegations that the BP boss had engaged in personal relationships with company colleagues. During that review, Looney disclosed “a small number of historical relationships with colleagues prior to becoming CEO”.
At the time, the company found there had been no breach of its code of conduct and the board was given assurances by Looney “regarding disclosure of past personal relationships, as well as his future behaviour”.
However, fresh allegations prompted the board of BP to reopen the investigation. Looney informed the board that he did not fully disclose details of all relationships at the time of the 2022 review, which prompted his resignation.
Alison Rose is one of the most high-profile female executives in the UK – she received a Damehood in the 2023 honours list.
However, she was forced to step down as chief executive of NatWest in July amid a row over the “debanking” of Nigel Farage, the former leader of the UK Independence and Brexit parties.
Rose previously admitted unintentionally misleading a BBC reporter into writing a story that said NatWest’s private bank, Coutts, cut ties with Farage for purely commercial reasons and that the decision had nothing to do with his political views.
Farage subsequently obtained and released a dossier of internal documents from Coutts that showed its reputational risk committee had accused him of “pandering to racists” and being a “disingenuous grifter”, which was “at odds with our position as an inclusive organisation”.
In November, Sam Altman, chief executive of OpenAI, which produces ChatGPT, was fired and re-hired in a whirlwind five day period after the board was faced with a staff rebellion and the ire of its biggest shareholder.
Microsoft owns 49% of OpenAI and has committed to invest more than $10bn into the company and yet it wasn’t consulted by the board on the move to oust Altman.
Initially, OpenAI’s board said that Altman had been fired because ‘he was not consistently candid in his communications with the board, hindering its ability to exercise its responsibilities’.
It has since been reported that the board coup stemmed from a clash over technological advances, and a dispute between champions of fast innovation and a faction more concerned about safety.
Either way, Microsoft was unhappy with the board’s decision and backed Altman.
Under mounting public pressure from its biggest shareholder and the prospect of mass company-wide staff defections, the board relented and Altman was brought back into the fold … with his status and power in the company significantly strengthened.
In November, Sam Bankman-Fried, who ran FTX, one of the world’s biggest cryptocurrency exchanges, was found guilty of fraud and money laundering at the end of a month-long trial in New York.
It concluded a stunning fall from grace for the 31-year-old former billionaire, once known as the “King of Crypto”, who now faces decades in jail.
Bankman-Fried was arrested last year after FTX – once valued at $32bn (£26bn) – went bankrupt with $8bn in customer funds missing.
The jury found him guilty of lying to investors and lenders and stealing billions of dollars from FTX, helping to precipitate its collapse. He was charged with seven counts of fraud and money laundering.
When Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) collapsed early this year, the finger pointing began. Who or what was responsible for the $212bn tech-lender’s abrupt implosion?
There are a number of contributory factors. Blame was apportioned to former US President, Donald Trump’s 2018 law that undid some of the credit requirements imposed under the Dodd-Frank banking legislation, brought in after the 2008 banking crisis.
Dodd-Frank required that banks with at least $50bn in assets undergo an annual Federal Reserve “stress test” and maintain certain levels of capital as well as plans for a living will if they failed.
In addition, the bank didn’t have a chief risk officer (CRO) for some of 2022, after Laura Izurieta, left the company in October but stopped performing the role in April.
SVB’s collapse was mainly down to complacency and poor risk management. The lender had benefited from more than a decade of “zero money” interest rates as billions poured into the bank via tech venture capital. Looking for some kind of a return, it put the money into long-term US treasury bonds.
But when interest rates started sharply rising last year, and depositors demanded higher returns, the bank was forced to sell some of those bonds at a loss. Investors panicked, triggering a classic bank run. From there, it took just 36 hours for the second-biggest bank failure in US history to materialise.
- The near implosion of the Confederation of British Industry, amid a sexual harassment scandal.
- British Gas sending “marketing” emails to customers warning that their old meters urgently need replacing because they may catch fire.
- Elon Musk’s management of X, formerly Twitter, and his controversial public utterings on the social media platform.
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