Chris Blackhurst: Scallops and Sellotape? How not to lead, by Fred the Shred

Midweek View: The Gogarburn HQ is a great monument to Mr Goodwin's vanity. The detail here is frightening, and laughable

Businesses are about people. In the end, they succeed or fail because of the human beings that run them. The numbers, the bit that gets the markets and media excited, is merely the outcome of the deeds of the chief executives and their colleagues.

It's a sort of mantra that has sustained me in business journalism. It's too easy to get carried away by the figures, without paying enough attention to what is going on inside the boss's head. Having interviewed and met numerous chairmen and CEOs down the years, I am still fascinated by their foibles – and where their behaviour might take the business.

Greed, avarice, lust, hubris – they and more are all there, and they're more important than any management consultant positioning paper or broker's report.

To demur, to say that process can prevail, he said with more than a hint of arrogance, is plain wrong. You only have to look at those firms that sink when the CEO baton is passed, to realise it's the quality of the person that matters.

That point is brought home again in Iain Martin's excellent new book, Making It Happen, about RBS and the banking crisis. When Fred Goodwin was in his pomp, I was invited to meet him. It was a Friday afternoon, at RBS's offices in the City, just before a long, bank-holiday weekend. Already, workers were gathering on the pavements outside the bars. As we sat at the top of the RBS building, he became visibly irritated by the sound of the clinking of glasses and laughter from below. He started pacing the room, looking down from the window, and asking: "What's wrong with this town, why does no one do any work?"

I recall the room was incredibly ordered. Everything in it was just so. The air-conditioning was uncomfortably cold. He was brittle and not especially friendly – odd, I remember thinking, because the invitation was his. He exuded impatience and annoyance. Quite why, I could not fathom. It was clear he did not do small talk; but then he did not seem that keen to discuss world, or industry, issues either.

In Mr Martin's book, Mr Goodwin is referred to by a former RBS executive as a "sociopath". He was a control freak but, fatally, that control was only reserved for items that, in the context of a massive international bank, were minor. So, he fretted about the use of Sellotape to stick up notices in RBS's high street branches – he hated the stuff, thinking it scruffy. Likewise, it infuriated him that the area around cash machines was so untidy, with customers chucking receipts and cigarette ends on the floor.

Similarly, he immersed himself in sessions to choose colours for advertising campaigns, office interiors, even the company's fleet of Mercedes S-Class (they had to be Pantone 281, the same as RBS's corporate blue). The corporate jet was registered G-RBSG (Royal Bank of Scotland Goodwin).

This is before we even get to the great monument to Mr Goodwin's vanity that is Gogarburn, the new RBS headquarters he had built outside Edinburgh. The detail here is frightening, and laughable. Gogarburn was to have a "scallop kitchen". When The Sunday Times wrote that, and other tales about Gogarburn, he threatened to withdraw all RBS advertising from the paper and its sister News International titles. Eventually, the row was settled with Mr Goodwin giving an interview to The Sunday Times in which the scallop kitchen was described as being not just for the preparation of scallops, but other seafood as well.

It's wonderful stuff, scary and funny at the same time. Tellingly, what there is not is the sense of anyone overseeing Mr Goodwin. Senior executives at the bank were full of stories about his rudeness (he once invited a group of journalists to the Chelsea Flower Show, never even said hello to us, and spent the evening with Merrill Lynch in its marquee nearby) and pettiness, but no one was standing up to him.

As for the board, reading Mr Martin's account it's hard to fathom what they did, exactly. The directors must have known that Mr Goodwin was something of a monster but did not appear concerned. They could dismiss his traits as inconsequential, if they were happy about the condition of the banking business underneath him. Crucially, though, he does not appear to have been put on the spot in this regard.

Behind RBS's understated exterior was a dictator. No one could manage him. Those who should have done chose not to. If anyone doubts that businesses are not about the people who run them, all they have to reprise is the shocking story of Fred Goodwin and RBS.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
News
Elton John and David Furnish will marry on 21 December 2014
people
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Sport
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
News
Stacey Dooley was the only woman to be nominated in last month’s Grierson awards
mediaClare Balding and Davina McCall among those overlooked for Grierson awards
Voices
Joseph Kynaston Reeves arguing with Russell Brand outside the RBS’s London offices on Friday
voicesDJ Taylor: The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a worker's rant to Russell Brand
News
Twitchers see things differently, depending on their gender
scienceNew study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
News
i100
News
Xander van der Burgt, at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
scienceA Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Carlton Senior Appointments: Private Banking Manager - Intl Bank - Los Angeles

$200 - $350 per annum: Carlton Senior Appointments: Managing Producer – Office...

Carlton Senior Appointments: San Fran - Investment Advisor – Ind Advisory Firm

$125 - $225 per annum: Carlton Senior Appointments: San Fran - Investment Advi...

Sheridan Maine: Commercial Finance Manager

Up to £70,000 per annum + benefits: Sheridan Maine: Are you a qualified accoun...

Sheridan Maine: Regulatory Reporting Accountant

Up to £65,000 per annum + benefits: Sheridan Maine: Are you a qualified accoun...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick