Rich memories among Tesco’s troubles and some lessons for spinners

My Week

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The Independent Online

Monday morning – and yet more Tesco. This time, the news from the embattled supermarket group was the appointment of two non-executive directors to its board.

It seemed like a sensible and long overdue move – both the hirings were of men much experienced in consumer industries. Mikael Ohlsson hailed from Ikea, where he’d spent 34 years, ending with the top job. Richard Cousins came from Compass, where he is CEO.

I don’t know Ohlsson but I do Cousins. He’s quiet, solid, gets on with it. In terms of nous, he’s head and shoulders above many of his new colleagues on the Tesco board.

Alas, as seemingly so much with Tesco these days, things are never quite what they seem. While the press release made mention of Cousins’ background, it made no mention, naturally, of the fact he was previously on the Reckitt Benckiser board and had to step down to devote himself more fully to Compass.

That was only 10 months ago, yet here he is, taking on the Tesco role. Speculation was going further, that he’s being lined up as the next Tesco chairman, in succession to Sir Richard Broadbent. It might explain why Tesco appealed to him more than Reckitt. Compass shareholders, however, are entitled to wonder what the contract caterer’s chief executive is really up to.

Corporate jet is a tale from another planet

The City, meanwhile, remains agog at Tesco’s purchase of a new Gulfstream 550, worth $50m, to add to its existing fleet of four corporate jets.

Even allowing for the fact the four may be leased as opposed to owned outright, it seems like lavishness on a grand scale. It says to me that Tesco management had lost all sense of reality, that they were no longer capable of thinking how their actions would be perceived by the public, that perhaps they simply did not care what others thought.

My favourite quote of the week came from the tale of the new Tesco plane. New boss Dave Lewis has put the aircraft up for sale. An aviation broker said: “The price may be $50m but you need to spend another $10m on the interior. The seats cost $250,000.”

It’s another world.

Glencore turns up the heat on iron

Tuesday saw my diary torn up because Glencore had tapped up Rio Tinto in a potential £100bn merger.

I was due to speak at a London Chamber of Commerce and Industry event unveiling the findings of its survey of more than 500 London firms on the state of business in the capital. Unfortunately, after I’d explored the Glencore move, I could not hot-foot it  across town in time to get to the LCCI session.

Glencore would like to own Rio Tinto because the latter is big in iron ore, and that’s a gaping hole in its world-beating positions in copper, nickel, zinc and coal. I can never forget that Glencore had its origins in Marc Rich & Co, run by the eponymous, most ruthless commodities trader of them all.

My own encounter with Rich, or rather someone close to the shadowy Blofeld figure who made billions treating the world’s precious resources as counters in a board game, deserves repetition. Forced to flee the US, Rich operated out of Switzerland. I went there to interview him once. He’d been implicated in a scam in London involving aluminium. He refused to see me. I questioned one of his associates. “Chris, why have you come to talk to us about aluminium?” he asked. I said, what should I be asking about? “Copper. Six months from now, look at the price,” he replied, smiling. Sure enough. The Financial Times reported to the very day: “Copper reaches all-time high, suspected heavy buying by Marc Rich.”

Referendum caused spending blip

The LCCI study was fascinating – 19 per cent of London firms reported rising domestic sales, but 18 per cent registered a decline.

Apparently, in the last quarter, firms were exporting more and hiring staff, so confidence was high. What knocked sales was uncertainty over the UK’s future status in the run-up to the Scottish referendum. Presumably, with that cloud now lifted, spending will rise.

There is such a thing as bad PR

Later, I went into the lion’s den, telling a gathering of public relations executives organised by PRmoment what, in my view, constitutes bad PR.

Perhaps it was the glass of wine beforehand or just my mood, but I gave it to them straight. I’d jotted down failings in no particular order. When they:

*don’t know what they’re talking about

*clearly have no idea about what makes a good photograph

*display lack of knowledge about our deadlines

*obviously have not read the newspaper or looked at the our website

*try to sell us stupid surveys (the sort that says women who steam-iron think about sex when they’re ironing, on behalf of a steam-iron maker)

*take it personally when we’re critical of their client

*lose their temper and shout at the journalist – they forget we have speaker phones and the whole office can hear and be entertained

*do not get out of the way of the client, always interjecting and interrupting

*try to control what we’re writing, demanding interview questions are sent in advance, blatantly steering the agenda

*give a story to one paper exclusively, then expect others to follow it big

*represent someone who should not have PR, such as a foreign dictator with an appalling human rights record

*don’t return emails and calls promptly

*assume journalists on other titles are our friends – they’re not, they’re our rivals

*lump all the press, broadsheets and tabloids together

*show no understanding of what constitutes a news story

When I finished, after I’d given examples for each one, instead of the silence I was expecting, they actually applauded. But then they were PRs, after all.