Christmas is over but here are some turkeys

City & Business
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The Independent Online
IT'S THAT time of year again when the PM scatters assorted gongs to the great and the good in the business community. I, meanwhile, bestow my alternative Wooden Spoon awards. For financial disasters, blunders, skulduggery and embarrassments, 1995 has been a bumper year.

For sheer scale and gall, nothing beats Nick Leeson's unauthorised bets on the Tokyo stock market, a $1.3bn spree which brought down the 200-year-old Barings empire and led to a six-and-a-half-year sentence for Leeson in a Singapore jail. He wins the Titanic Award for Financial Catastrophe.

The Horatio Nelson Cup - given to the most blatant example of turning a blind eye - goes to the senior management of Barings for ignoring a whole catalogue of warning signs. The Bank of England is runner-up in this category.

Leeson's capacity for losing a billion without anyone noticing deserves recognition in a new award, the Leeson Trophy, which I have no hesitation in awarding to Toshihide Iguchi. Mr Iguchi, a bond trader in the New York branch of Daiwa Bank, managed to conceal $1.1bn losses accumulated over 11 years . Even then he was only caught after writing a full confession to his bosses.

Companies galore covered themselves in manure during the year. P&O, which ended the year as the worst- performing Footsie stock, down 22.8 per cent, was a prime example. Inchcape was another. British Gas, locked into contracts to buy billions of pounds of gas it doesn't want, is a third.

But my award of 1995 Corporate Turkey has to go to Trafalgar House. Faces there began the year pinkish as it withdrew its bid for Northern Electric, reddened over the shambolic refit of its flagship QEII, and turned positively crimson by year-end as it revealed even worse than expected losses.

There is always fierce competition for my next award, the PR Shambles Bowl. I thought Unilever had it in the bag after the saga of Persil Power - a new detergent it doggedly refused to pull, despite growing evidence that it could in certain circumstances rot clothing. Persil Power finally bit the dust, but only after the affair had cost Unilever pounds 57m.

Next came British Gas's disastrous handling of Cedric Brown's 75 per cent pay rise - an increase which coincided with more job losses, more showroom closures and a rocketing in customer complaints, not to mention the parading of a pig named Cedric outside the annual shareholders' meeting.

Then came Brent Spar: Shell managed to attract all the negative publicity (and damage to sales) surrounding its desire to dump a disused oil platform in the deep Atlantic, only to capitulate at the very last moment. I think Shell is the winner by a short head.

The Nebuchadnezzar Award for Boardroom Extravagance this year goes to Maurice Saatchi, whose acrimonious departure from Saatchi & Saatchi triggered stories about the high-rolling lifestyle he once led at the ad agency. Among the titbits leaked by the anti-Maurice camp was the fact that in one year alone he spent pounds 5,600 of company money on flowers.

The entire board of the Cheltenham & Gloucester Building Society wins my next award, the Brutus Cup for Corporate Betrayal. The C&G decided to go ahead with its sale to Lloyds Bank, encouraging its 380,000 borrowers to surrender their ownership rights in the society in return for nothing.

The White Rabbit Award for Unfortunate Timing goes to Mick Newmarch, the erstwhile boss at the Pru. He quit after the Stock Exchange launched an investigation into his dealings in Pru shares just before publishing new business figures.

The Jeffrey Archer Award for Not Insider Trading goes this year to Her Majesty's Government. The Treasury decided to go ahead with the sale of shares in National Power and PowerGen despite being in possession of the price-sensitive information that the regulator, Stephen Littlechild, was considering a fresh clampdown on regional electricity companies. In a classic whitewash inquiry, it was then cleared of any wrongdoing ... by the Treasury!

To Sir Rocco Forte goes the Ethelred Trophy. Sir Rocco appeared embarrassingly unready when Granada's Gerry Robinson unleashed his pounds 3.2bn hostile takeover bid. He was out shooting pheasant.

Cable & Wireless picks up the Oliver Cromwell Award for Civil War after a simmering dispute between its chairman, Lord Young, and chief executive, James Ross, erupted into open hostilities. Both ended up collecting their P45s. Runner-up is Amstrad, where chairman Alan Sugar lost his chief executive, David Rogers, in the dying days of the year after a row over future strategy.

The title of Consumer Basher of the Year, won last year by Michael Heseltine, gets passed straight on to his successor at the Department of Trade and Industry, Ian Lang. To the end Mr Heseltine showed he deserved the title, overturning the majority report of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission into GEC's bid for VSEL. Mr Lang kicked off his tenure by approving North West Water's pounds 1.8bn bid for Norweb, though he partly redeemed himself by referring the power generators' bids for two other regional electricity companies.

The Stock Exchange and others unknown win the Machiavelli Cup for Backstairs Manoeuvring for secretly trying to water down some of the Greenbury Committee's key recommendations on top pay disclosure. One Greenbury member, Geoff Lindey, spoke out about his fear that "powerful voices" were trying to block their proposals. It promises to be a fascinating battle.

The Gerald "Total Crap" Ratner Gaffe of the Year Award was captured effortlessly by Sir Iain Vallance, chairman of BT, who said he might find it "relaxing" to work junior doctors' hours.

Rupert Pennant-Rea, meanwhile, walks away with the David Mellor Trophy for Kiss-and-Tell Victim, an award rarely made in business circles. The last winner was Sir Ralph Halpern, then Burton chief, a decade ago. Mr Pennant-Rea was forced to resign as deputy governor of the Bank of England after the publication of embarrassing revelations by his former lover.

The Billy Bunter Award for Reneging on Debt goes to Eurotunnel, which suspended interest payments on its pounds 8bn borrowings. The irrepressibly optimistic co-chairman, Sir Alastair Morton, is still expecting a postal order.

From all of us on the business staff, we wish our readers a Happy and Prosperous New Year.

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