Jeremy Warner's Outlook: Monsoon bucks trend in more ways than one

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The Independent Online

Peter Simon, the chairman and founder of the fashion retailer Monsoon, has placed a life-sized replica of a white cow outside the boardroom in his London headquarters. Decorated by Accessorize designers with gold toenails and a garland, he likes to think of it as a replacement for non-executive directors, only more useful (it doesn't answer back) and is a good sight less expensive.

The strategy seems to be working. Since Mr Simon got rid of his non-executives and appointed his brother, Anton, to look after the interests of outside shareholders instead, sales and profits have stormed ahead and the share price has nearly doubled.

Mr Simon thinks the two things not unconnected. Many chief executives of publicly quoted companies spend upwards of 20 per cent of their time dealing with investors, analysts and the press. Now that he's cancelled the listing and is instead quoted on the Alternative Investment Market, Mr Simon doesn't speak to them at all, which means he can devote himself 100 per cent to his business. Even his results statement yesterday, which concludes with the remark: "Well done and thank you", seems more directed at employees than investors. Nor does he have to spend any time attempting to convince sceptical, box-ticking non-executives that he's doing is the right thing.

With like-for-like sales up 13 per cent in the six weeks to 8 January, Monsoon seems to have had one of the best Christmases on the high street. Is Mr Simon on to something with his sacred white cow?

There was a furious row in the City when Mr Simon attempted to buy out the bulk of the minority at what many investors thought was under value. It felt like a gun was being put to their heads when Mr Simon added that he would to boot cancel the listing and the dividend. Accept or your investment won't be worth a sausage, he seemed to be saying. Mr Simon's argument was that the shares had floundered ever since the company had been floated, despite all his efforts to produce better profits, so it was hard to see how cancelling the dividend and reinvesting the proceeds in the business instead would make matters any worse.

In the end, investors called his bluff and very few accepted his bid. However, sufficient did take the money for him to be able to go through with his threat, which with the shares now double what they were then, everyone is jolly thankful for, including many of those who were screaming blue murder at the time. More fool the ones who sold.

Iconoclasm of this type isn't going to work in all cases. For every Monsoon there will be a Marconi or a Brent Walker, where lack of accountability results in a less happy ending. But for fast-growing, entrepreneurially led companies where there is a controlling shareholder, much of the paraphernalia of corporate governance is irrelevant and even damaging.

People invest in these concerns not because they obey the rules, but because they are run by mad visionaries who constantly break them. High risk, or "lack of visibility" as it is sometimes referred to in the City these days, goes with the territory. The last thing they want is for the entrepreneur at the centre of such companies to be so hedged around with safeguards, checks and balances, that he cannot move or manage as he sees fit.

It is little wonder that AIM is growing so robustly, with well over 1,000 companies now quoted, while the main listed market is still shrinking. Nor is it any wonder that so much top executive talent is disappearing into private equity, where the rewards are potentially much higher and the corporate governance police less demanding. The Higgs reforms to the Combined Code, which invite companies to conform or explain, are an understandable and worthy enough response to the corporate disasters of the last downturn, but they are also stifling enterprise. It's only a shame that so few companies wish to exercise their right to explain. Conformity, the enemy of creativity, has become its own sacred cow. Few dare challenge it.

Millennium goals

Professor Jeffrey Sachs, the head of the UN Millennium project task force, is right to insist that doubling the amount of annual official development assistance to $135bn (£73bn) is eminently affordable for developed nations. It pales against the wealth of high income countries, amounting to just 0.5 per cent of their combined annual income, and is shamefully only a small fraction of the world military budget of $900bn for last year. Yet the more important question has always been whether it would do any good.

Whenever calamity strikes, the wealthier nations are gripped by a great outpouring of usually genuine angst and compassion about the lot of the Third and developing world, where poverty is rife and life expectancy short. Conferences are held, great tomes, such as that of Professor Sachs yesterday, are published, and lots of promises are made. The disasters were very different, but it happened after 11 September, and it's happening again with the tsunami. Yet the collective consciousness tends not to be focused in this way for very long. Like snow in summer, it melts away almost as quickly as it has arrived, as more pressing, domestic political and economic concerns come in.

So again, Professor Sachs is right to insist that this time the very credibility of the international system is at stake. Five years after the Millennium Goals for poverty reduction were set out, little if any real progress has been made. If countries that have met their commitments on political, social and economic reform are not supported this time around, then already dwindling faith in the West's determination to reduce poverty will vanish. He's right to be ambitious and he's right to chastise.

Yet unfortunately, many of his recommendations are so utopian and impractical as to be almost risible. For instance, one of his quick fixes is that of free mass distribution of malaria bed-nets and effective antimalarial medicines for all children in regions of malaria transmission. Great, but how do you even get into some of these countries, let alone ensure that the bed-nets are properly used? Professor Sachs admits that money alone won't be sufficient to meet the Goals, yet he seems to think it is the most important thing. Unless it is there and being spent, there can be no serious conversation about economic and social reform, he insists. Yet in his eagerness to eradicate poverty, Professor Sachs seems entirely to have forgotten that though these countries may be poor and pleased of any assistance, they are are also sovereign nations, many of them run by corrupt and dictatorial regimes. The problem for most of them is not lack of aid but bad government, which conspires to impoverish the population.

Professor Sachs is proposing aid programmes so ambitious and all-encompassing - free primary education and health care for all, for instance - that they would require the developed world to move in and take control to make them succeed. Just look to Iraq to see what happens when the West tries to do that.

And what's the point in cancelling debt if all the money so saved goes straight into the military budget? Much of the aid given to the Third and developing world would frankly do more good if it were distributed as a straight cash handout to the local population, where it would at least boost the spending power of the poor. Despite the strings now routinely attached to the giving of aid, much of it is money down the drain. Yet Professor Sachs seems not to care, so long as the commitment is made.

I don't want to be cynical about Gordon Brown's tour of Africa. He's been banging on about all this since long before the tsunami, and though it may suit his political ambitions to be pictured commiserating with poor people just when the nation's conscience is in a state of such high alert, he's thought long and hard about these issues and his interest is genuine and heartfelt. But Africa's problem has never been lack of compassion. Rather it is cultural, historical and political. Until these things are dealt with, aid is like water poured into the desert sands.

jeremy.warner@independent.co.uk

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