Fat cats and communists, failures and fêted retirees

The year in quotes: From immortal phrases to barely repeatable insults, the world of business had plenty to say in 2003

And so, farewell then 2003, a year which started with cheers from Safeway's long-suffering shareholders, after a bid for the group from Sir Ken Morrison, and ended in tears for those who had invested in the Italian food giant Parmalat, as a billion-euro black hole was discovered in its accounts.

As we headed towards February, and the bidders for Safeway piled up, so did the losses at Cable & Wireless and BAE Systems. Although Graham Wallace, C&W's chief executive, was forced to fall on his sword, Sir Dick Evans, BAE's boss, managed to tough it out despite announcing an amazing £750m write-off on the group's Nimrod and Astute defence programmes. "The object of the exercise when you've got a bloody great fire burning is to put it out. I think we have done that pretty successfully," he told those calling for his resignation.

March saw a spat between the pub entrepreneurs Tim Martin and Hugh Osmond get personal. Mr Martin, the JD Wetherspoons founder, dismissed Mr Osmond's bid for Six Continents, via the AIM-listed cash shell CMI, with the words: "There'll be a bid from Donny Osmond next." Not really highbrow stuff, but then nor was Mr Osmond's retort: "Mr Martin is a very good operator, but I would put a question mark over his hairstyle," a clear dig at Tim Martin's "mullet" coiffure.

March was an otherwise poor month for insightful quotes from the world of international finance and big business. And if March was bad, April was a total write-off. So we reach May, and Jean-Pierre Garnier, the head of GlaxoSmithKline, told us that of course he was going to accept a pay deal which entitled him to a potential £15m severance package. "I'm not Mother Teresa," he responded to critics of the deal. As it turned out, a shareholder revolt saw the proposal voted down, but we should not feel too sorry for Mr Garnier. He will walk away with at least a couple of million pounds in salary from the drugs giant this year.

As the row over fat cattery in Britain's boardrooms escalated, Niall Fitzgerald, the £2m-a-year chairman of Unilever, was heard expressing indignation at the massive pay-offs enjoyed by some directors, describing them as "a potential cancer on society".

Tributes to Eddie George poured in during the summer as the Governor of the Bank of England headed for retirement or, in his own words, made "the transition from Who's Who to Who's He".

Leading the tributes was Gordon Brown, who told the story of how Steady Eddie joked his way out of a rather embarrassing situation at a charity raffle. Having inadvertently helped himself to a good measure of a bottle of scotch, only to discover it was a 1937 vintage Glenfiddich earmarked as the top prize, Mr George, in true central banker style, presented the bottle anyway and described it as half full rather than half empty, Mr Brown recalled in a speech to the CBI.

Meanwhile, employees of The Accident Group, the collapsed personal injury specialist, were left the following voice mail: "All staff who are being retained will be contacted today. If you have not been spoken to you are therefore redundant."

During an eventful June, we also learned just how cut-throat the inter-dealer broker business really is. Lee Amaitis, the European president of Cantor Fitzgerald, was alleged to have called Michael Spencer, the chief executive of rival Icap, a "fucking fat greasy fuck". The details came out in a court case brought by a former Cantor broker against his once employer. Mr Amaitis was also forced to deny having been offered the services of a hit man who could "take care" of Mr Spencer for good.

Mervyn King, who by August had already had a month as the Bank of England's new governor, was heard telling Test Match Special of his ideal dinner party guests. "Che Guevara - did you know he was a central bank governor? I would love to know what he thought about his time as governor". His other guests would include Zhou En-lai, the Chinese communist leader, and Catherine Deneuve, the French actress.

In October, Michael Green told the City he wanted to be chairman of the newly formed ITV plc until he reached 80. Soon after, the City told him it did not like his idea and sent him packing.

In the same month, the media mogul Rupert Murdoch brushed aside talk of him taking things easy, given his advanced age. He said he had delayed his own retirement plans "forever", and just to show the City who's boss installed his son James as chief executive of the satellite broadcaster BSkyB.

Meanwhile, Barclays boss Matt Barrett told a select committee of MPs he would not borrow on a Barclaycard because it was too expensive, while Lord Browne, the chief executive of BP, wisely told journalists that "in business, trust is never 100 per cent". Lord Browne's comments came after he secured a $7bn merger with the Russian oil company TNK, run by essentially the same people who caused him to lose his shirt the last time he tried to make money in Russia.

Into November and things started to unravel at Conrad Black's Hollinger International as the Telegraph proprietor was accused of receiving unauthorised payments from the company. In his defence, he urged us to "contemplate the possibility that there's just a chance I might be innocent".

And finally, what year would be complete without a quote from the vociferous Philip Green. As ever, in 2003 he took every opportunity to tell us just how rich he really is. Responding to speculation that his wife was buying him an £18m private jet for Christmas, he said: "That's news to me. I'll have to tell Tina off. She's clearly getting too much housekeeping."

Comments