Resist cynicism, Next's chief executive has given us a heart-warming story

Lord Wolfson has foregone a bonus of £2.4m and asked for the money to be shared among those of his workforce who have been with the company for three years or more
  • @Simon_Kelner

Amid the tales of golden hellos, platinum pay-offs and gargantuan annual salaries that populate the business pages of our daily prints is a heart-warming story that may have passed you by.

Lord Wolfson, the 45-year-old chief executive of the clothes retailer Next, would not be someone with whom those of us who have to scrape by on less than seven-figure pay-packets would feel a natural affinity.

The Conservative life peer has substantial properties in London and Leicestershire, earned £4.6m for his labours last year, recently cashed in £3.8m in shares to pay for his wedding and a new marital home, and in 2012 offered a prize of £250,000 to the member of the public who came up with the best plan for a nation to exit the Euro.

So what has earned Lord Wolfson a place in the  pantheon of corporate do-gooders? He has just foregone a bonus of £2.4m and asked for the money to be shared among those of his workforce who have been with the company for three years or more. "This is a gesture of thanks and appreciation from the company," he told his employees, "for the hard work and commitment you have given...through some very tough times."

For the average Next worker, this represents a cash gratuity of one per cent of their annual salary. This is not a life-changing amount, any more than the 2.4 big ones would transform Lord Wolfson's fortunes, but in the week when the omnipresence of Margaret Thatcher reminded us where the culture of corporate greed began, it was an act of generosity to warm the flintiest of hearts. Well, almost. A national officer of the GMB union, which represents shop workers, had this to say. "Next staff do not need charity handouts from Lord Wolfson or his board." The union dismissed the chief executive's initiative as a "PR gesture". 

It seemed like another throwback to Mrs T's time: the union boss adopting the posture of class warfare even though the war has, I'm afraid, been won and lost. Even allowing for the cartoon element of the GMB's response, it was a pretty mean response. Others have noted, too, that if you've got a shareholding worth £66m - as Lord W has - altruism comes a little easier.

This may well be true, but why be so begrudging?  (I noticed a similar reaction, by the way, to the outstanding sportsmanship shown by the Argentine golfer Angel Cabrera when he lost the Masters in heart-breaking circumstances last week. It's OK for him, some have said, he's won the trophy previously.) 

We should resist the temptation to be cynical: the proper response is whole-hearted admiration. There are isolated examples of similar generosity from abroad - Mayor Bloomberg of New York, a billionaire, takes only $1 in pay, and the president of Uruguay foregoes 90 per cent of his salary, donating it to charity. "I do fine with that," he says. "Many Uruguayans have to make do with much less."  But this is in public life. Wolfson is a rare, possibly unique, figure in the boardroom. He is a hero of our times, and should be venerated as such. Let us hope he will become an example to the fattest specimens in the cattery.