The View

Hedge funds and corporate bosses vie for ‘Scrooge of the year’ title

No shortage of role models on how to become spectacularly unpopular in business

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 December, 2015, 11:14am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 December, 2015, 11:22am

There’s nothing like the festive season for a bit of contrarian expression so let’s use the opportunity offered by the arrest of the former whizz kid Martin Shkreli to subdue thoughts of good cheer by thinking about what it takes to become a spectacularly unpopular business or a much hated business leader.

Shrkeli was arrested on charges of operating a Ponzi-like scheme in the United States. He is also famous for proudly taking over a pharmaceutical company and hiking the price of medications for Aids patients from US$13.5 to US$750 per pill. Compounding the outpouring of rage he assiduously took to the airwaves to boast about his achievements.

Shkreli may even succeed in entering the history books in a worse light than the legendary Hollywood mogul, Louis B Mayer. It was famously said that the best explanation for the large number of people attending his funeral was to make sure he was dead.

It was famously said that the best explanation for the large number of people attending his funeral was to make sure he was dead

Hollywood moguls are doing better in the popularity stakes these days and have yielded their most loathed status to bankers. This is despite the fact that image consultants and all manner of PR people with ever-fancier titles increasingly surround bankers.

You might have thought that these fine folks would do a better job of keeping their bosses off hate lists. But a Harris Poll of 27,278 Americans conducted earlier this year saw bankers again topping the business hate list. Goldman Sachs was rated as the No 1 most hated, followed by the insurance and finance conglomerate AIG. Their image problem can be summed up simply: too rich, too arrogant and responsible for screwing far too many people.

However there were other contenders in the unpopularity stakes. Some, like BP and Monsanto, had been involved in major scandals. Others, like Wal-Mart, ranking 17th on the hate list, probably suffered precisely because they have so much direct contact with the public and far too many people have tales of how Wal-Mart let them down.

McDonald’s is another company with low popularity ratings, probably for similar reasons but also because it tends to be demonised for the unhealthy nature of the products it sells. Yet, when the fast food giant has attempted to introduce healthier options, such as salads, the public has shown a marked lack of interest.

It may therefore be possible to detect a degree of schizophrenia at work with people giving poor marks to companies that attract their active patronage yet are widely seen as bad boys for supplying them with what they actually want as opposed to what they believe they should want. In Wal-Mart’s case, workers paid a pittance make many of its goods; this is unpleasant and makes people feel bad. However Wal-Mart’s low prices, based on low costs of production, are what the public actually wants.

A more intriguing example of mixed thinking comes in the shape of Irish based Ryanair, which arguably did more than any other company to bring cheap air travel to European consumers. The airlines’ boss Michael O’Leary has spoken loudly about not pandering to customers when they are in the wrong, wrong that is in his opinion. There was a considerable customer backlash to remarks of this kind, so damaging that this normally arrogant man had to eat quite a lot of humble pie before winning back customers.

O’Leary, was at least talking about his own business and was not foolish enough to gratuitously insult his customers about a matter that had absolutely nothing to do with air travel.

The prize for outstanding stupidity in alienating customers for reasons with absolutely no relevance to their business goes to the fashion designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana. Although they happen to be gay themselves and must know the value of gay customers in the fashion industry, they decided to gratuitously insult couples using in-vitro fertilization, or IVF, to give birth. This upset both gay and heterosexual couples and provoked an international boycott of their eponymously named goods.

Hong Kong, meanwhile, has a tradition of admiring successful corporate leaders and it is rare to see the problems of poor image impacting the sales of the biggest conglomerates. However the mood is changing as the feeling of collusion between big business and government turns sour and there has been talk of boycotts of tycoon-run companies.

If what’s happened elsewhere in the world were to happen here, there will be a price to pay for unpopularity. This explains why companies pour money into enhancing a feel good factor. Sometimes this takes the form of charitable donations; sometimes it involves little more than niceness offensives – particularly at this time of year.

Maybe even bankers might be able to look good during the festive season, just think what happened to Charles Dickens’ moneylender Ebenezer Scrooge in a Christmas Carol.