Freddie Flannel: Why Eric needed to acquire a reputation for ruthlessness

Diary of a Boardroom Adviser
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The Independent Online

Sometimes the job of boardroom éminence grise is just too demoralising. I've been toiling on behalf of my old client Eric Nicoli for decades and for what? First at United Biscuits and now at EMI, he seems fated to be perennially misunderstood.

No one seems to appreciate that Eric was a collossus in the biscuits business. Who was responsible for the masterful Jaffa Cake packet redesign of 1992? Who pushed through the groundbreaking Hula Hoop recipe change? Who transformed attitudes to the chocolate digestive?

Eric gave his soul to UB for 19 years, the last eight as chief executive. Some pettifogging shareholders point out that he left the business worth half what it had been when he took the helm. Personally I hate this small-minded obsession with share prices. There are bigger issues at stake. Eric virtually invented the Yorkie Bar, for goodness sake! That surely counts for more than the odd billion in destroyed value?

Eric of course moved on to run EMI two years ago. He phoned me last week begging for some Flannel counsel and I hurried round to his Hanover Square office. He was dressed all in black and was tapping his Gucci trainers to a thudding beat from two giant speakers.

"Snoop Dogg," he explained, ushering me to a seat. "Two-million seller, awesome gangsta rapper. Check out his phat new beats." Last time I saw Eric his biggest cultural concern was the sugar content of jammy dodgers. And he regarded anything after the Eagles' Hotel California as dangerously subversive.

Anyway he soon started to unburden himself. "Freddie, everything's going wrong. Those meddlesome bureaucrats in Brussels won't let me merge with anyone. Mariah Carey's gone AWOL. And to cap it all, sales have fallen off a cliff. What am I going to do?" I nodded sympathetically. I knew all about the merger problems. Last year he tried to sell EMI first to Time Warner and then to Bertelsmann, both times being stymied by Brussels. It was fee heaven for us advisers. I think Freshfields got the biggest chunk of the £43m, but Flannel & Associates were not far behind.

I thought it best to shift the conversation on.

"Mariah Carey?"

"Yes, we only just signed a £17m-an-album deal with her. She was going to be our goldmine. Then she has some kind of breakdown. And her new movie Glitter turns out to be a turkey."

Morosely he pushed a newspaper cutting across the table. It was a film review from the New York Daily News. "Carey is astonishingly bad," it said bluntly. "It's not just her, sales are awful everywhere," said Eric.

I saw it was time for action. "There's no escaping it. You'll have to put out a profit warning. You know the kind of thing – difficult market conditions, political and economic uncertainty, the usual excuses. And for goodness sake, look tough. Have you sacked anyone recently?"

Eric looked blank. He picked up the phone and got through to someone in personnel. He brightened. "Apparently we've just laid off 100 people in Latin America."

"It'll have to do," I sighed. Eric, bless him, urgently needed to acquire a reputation for ruthlessness. "Put it in the trading statement. And lots of guff about swift, decisive action towards improving operational efficiency. The stock market always loves that one.

"Oh, and this time name an artist some of the older fund managers have actually heard of," I added. "What about Pink Floyd, are they still alive?"

Well, as you'll have seen, the statement went out, complete with the Pink Floyd reference. But EMI's shares collapsed by a third anyway. Sometimes, it feels ominously like United Biscuits all over again.