Big business has plenty to learn from the rise and fall of Big Sam

DATE: Mar, 3   COMMENTS: 0   AUTHOR: Allan Azarola

Sam Allardyce’s monumental blunder means that now he will be remembered for only one thing. All of the former Bolton stopper’s previous achievements in football are relegated to footnotes. His obituary will be dominated by the fact that he was England manager for one match.

Such a fate is not rare in football or even among England managers. Don Revie, despite fashioning one of the most successful English club sides of the 1970s, is now mainly recalled for the money-grubbing circumstances in which he walked out on his country.

Yet Big Sam’s rapid demise also carries lessons for businesspeople. Every chairman or chief executive, although few admit it, thinks about their legacy and how their tenure will be remembered.

Some have suffered a similar indignity to Allardyce. Sir Tom McKillop, in 2009, freely admitted that his distinguished 40-year career in the world of science and pharmaceuticals, taking him from technical director of ICI to more than a decade as chief executive of Zeneca and later AstraZeneca, now counted for nothing. Instead, showing a self-awareness many top business executives do not, he accepted that he would be remembered for being chairman of Royal Bank of Scotland when it needed to be rescued by the taxpayer.

He said he had come to terms with that. A glance at Sir Tom’s Wikipedia entry, most of which concerns his brief chairman-ship of RBS rather than his decades in the drugs and chemicals industries, suggests he was wise to do so.

Sir Tom is not the only corporate leader to have a distinguished career overshadowed by the manner of their departure. Phil Clarke’s 40 years of loyal service to Tesco, an inspiring rise from shelf-stacker to chief executive, has been obliterated by the string of profits warnings that triggered his departure and the accounting scandal that followed it almost immediately. Similarly, Sir Philip Watts is remembered now not for his 35 years at Shell, or even the remarkable journey that saw his advance from a Leicester council estate to chairmanship of the world’s third-biggest oil company, but for the reserves scandal that toppled him in 2004.

Yet for some corporate leaders, time can be a healer. When, in 1992, a boardroom row forced Bob Stempel out of his job as chairman and chief executive of General Motors, a position in which he had looked impregnable, it seemed that he would be remembered solely for presiding over the loss of 74,000 American jobs and the closure of a dozen plants. By the time of his death in 2011, while the job cuts and the manner of his exit were still mentioned in his obituaries, Mr Stempel was being hailed as a pioneer in his field, a man whose inventive genius helped to create not only the catalytic converter but also the technology on which many of today’s electric vehicles are based. His reputation reverted from that of a job-cutter to that of a great engineer whose vision forced the automobile industry to be more aware of its impact on the environment and sought to reduce it.

The best executives pick themselves up and start over again. Maurice and Charles Saatchi, having in 1995 been forced out by shareholders from the advertising agency they founded, responded by starting M&C Saatchi with Bill Muirhead, Jeremy Sinclair and David Kershaw. They have been immensely successful and few now recall what was described by Campaign as “the biggest bust-up in UK advertising history”. They instead remember the great campaigns created by the brothers, such as “Labour Isn’t Working” in 1979 and “It Is. Are You?” in 1985, for The Independent.

Among the most striking reputational turnarounds of recent times have involved BP’s past two chief executives. When Lord Browne of Madingley left the oil group in 2007, after revelations about his private life, it seemed inevitable that the manner of his departure would overshadow all he had achieved at BP. He has now rebuilt his reputation not only in the private equity sector but also as a successful author, as a patron of the arts and education, as well as becoming a doughty campaigner for LGBT causes, arguing forcefully for businesses to ensure that they bring out the best from their LGBT employees.

Tony Hayward, Lord Browne’s successor at BP, left the company in 2010 after the Deepwater Horizon disaster. However, he, too, has successfully rebuilt his career at Genel Energy, where in less than a decade he has accumulated more wealth than he did in 28 years at BP. More recently, he has proved a safe pair of hands as chairman of Glencore, potentially a highly hazardous boardroom berth.

The most astute business leaders think long in advance about their exits and their legacies. A shining example is Sir Rod Eddington, the former chief executive of British Airways, whose reputation remains as high as it did when he bowed out 11 years ago.

His departure was impeccably handled. Asked why he was going, Sir Rod, an Australian who played first-class cricket for Oxford, quoted his country’s greatest all-rounder Keith Miller: “You should always go when they ask why you’re going, rather than wait until they ask why you’re still there.”

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