A well-known City PR adviser asked me on Monday what I thought Tesco was doing?
He simply could not understand why it had decided to try to spin its way out of trouble. He was referring to the weekend’s press and a plethora of detail about Dave Lewis, the new chief executive.
Mr Lewis was having to work long hours, he was visiting stores, he was testing online deliveries at home, he’d taken his senior team to a Norfolk hideaway where they discussed strategy and shopped at Tesco and cooked meals for one another, he was ordering head- office staff to man tills and stack shelves. All of which is exactly what anyone would expect him to be doing, given the circumstances.
The worry is that much of it was treated as though what he was doing was revolutionary. It might be for someone working at Unilever, his previous employer. But in retail, it’s par for the course.
Every top retailer I’ve ever known has been obsessive about their customers and how they’re feeling – and the only way they can gauge that is by getting among them, walking the aisles, dropping into stores and talking to them. When they’re not worrying about their own shoppers, they go and scrutinise those of their rivals. I can think of two bosses I know who are on first-name terms not just with their own staff but competitors’, so often do they check out what the opposition is up to.
Two interpretations arose from the breathless Tesco coverage. One was that the supermarket group really has lost its way (the former chief, Sir Terry Leahy, took customer surveys and store visits to new heights). The other is that Mr Lewis really is very new to the retailing game.
What would the veteran City PR adviser suggest to him? “Say nothing, don’t dig the hole you’re in any deeper than it is already, and get on with it quietly.”
Peter Sands just isn’t ‘one of us’
Next to making money, the City loves revelling in the misfortune of someone who, accidentally or deliberately, was perceived, and possibly saw themselves, as being better than the rest.
So it proved on Tuesday, as Peter Sands, the head of Standard Chartered, disclosed the bank’s third profit warning in 12 months. Schadenfreude was very much in evidence as the shares were sent plummeting, hitting a five-year low.
Mr Sands was the banker called in by the then Labour Government to help devise the banks’ rescue plan during the crisis in 2008. His bank, with its heavy leaning towards the Asian markets, was safe from the bonfire.
Then, much to the delight of his enemies, came trouble: fined in the US for money laundering; risky loans by its wholesale business in Asia; reports of clashes between Mr Sands and his then finance director, Richard Meddings; and the forced closure of thousands of small to medium-sized business accounts in the United Arab Emirates. They all undermined the bank’s reputation. Doubts remain, too, about its over-exposure to China.
Meanwhile, there’s Mr Sands himself. He’s ex-McKinsey, not a banker by background. He’s cerebral and outspoken in his criticism of other banks, accusing them of all being the same and calling for a stronger regulatory framework.
Within the industry he’s regarded as an outsider – same as another McKinseyite, Stephen Green, was never entirely accepted when he ran HSBC. Eventually, when pressed, critics of Mr Green would come up with the “not one of us” argument.
Mr Green, now in the Lords, ended up in government as a minister. I can’t help thinking Mr Sands will follow a similar path.
Sexuality still dare not speak its name
People outside the City always assume it’s a broad church – that all the multinational financial brands operating there are proof of an open inclusivity.
But the attitude towards Messrs Sands and Green says different. So does the prevailing view of homosexuality. While the big banks, law firms and accountancy firms all make great play of their equality and diversity, and how they have LGBT policies and staff groups, the reality is that very few of their senior people have come out.
Their decision to keep their sexuality hidden, even to the point of pretending to be heterosexual, speaks volumes as to how they think the City regards gays and lesbians. Not just the City, either. The decision of Apple chief Tim Cook to go public with his homosexuality received enormous media coverage. One day, someone such as Mr Cook coming out will not be a story at all. Sadly, we’re nowhere reaching that point at present.
Skyscrapers – we ain’t seen nothing yet
Over lunch with Irvine Sellar, developer of The Shard, the conversation turns to the explosion in skyscrapers in London. I say I’d read somewhere that 30 towers are under starter’s orders. He frowns and waves his hand, upwards. He would not be surprised, he said, if there were not 200 being planned.
Speed awareness steps on the gas
Thursday night and I’m due at a speeding awareness class. It’s held at the Holiday Inn at Shepperton in Surrey.
I make it, with seconds to spare. When I arrive, breathless, I make a joke about not being able to put my foot down. Nobody laughs. One of the two co-hosts says he’s lost count of how many times he’s heard it.
He’s from a firm specialising in such classes. There are 22 of us taking part, and we’ve all paid £98.50 to attend for four hours. His company does back-to-back sessions in several locations, and they’re all booked up.
I realise that a whole new industry has grown up where recently there was not one at all – and they must be making money at a prodigious rate. Apart from the hire of the room, which is small and crowded, a few teaching materials, and the salaries of the two men in charge, they can’t have many costs.
It’s hard, too, to see the pitfalls; people will always be caught driving too fast and they will do anything to avoid the points on their licence.
Speeding awareness courses – you can’t go wrong.