Sarah Sands: To run a store, it helps to break the bank first

Why the man who sank HBOS is walking tall again
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The Independent Online

The late Lord Rothermere, Vere Harmsworth, was patient towards the misdemeanours of his journalists, explaining that if a canary fell off its perch then it must be tenderly put back. The most dangerous person in any office, he said, was the one who had never made a mistake.

According to this dictum, Andy Hornby, former head of HBOS, should be as safe as houses. Having destroyed a bank he has risen again to run Boots. Public reaction has not been joyous. The last time we saw Hornby was in the remarkable show trial of the bankers before Parliament. In this hostage video, the four men from HBOS and RBS repressed both fear and outrage. They attempted to look commanding, as if a pleading apology came under Any Other Business.

Hornby was still searching for the right tone last week. He wanted to express boundless enthusiasm for the future of Boots while seeming sober about his past. He was a man going out with Paris Hilton and bumping into his former parents-in-law.

So he used the Rothermere defence: his bruising fall had made him a better manager. "Everyone who was working closely in the financial crisis should have learned a hell of a lot."

What does one learn from misfortune, and how does it improve one's professional character? Identical patterns of misfortune are rare. Andy Hornby would know what to do next time mortgages looked sloppy and inter-bank lending tight, but he is now back in retailing. Will the same alarms sound if Boots Protect and Perfect stops being regarded as a miracle skin cure, just as he has ordered in pandemic-scale supplies?

Second chances are also a matter of moral taste. The public is extremely ambivalent about the redemptive case for prisoners. The victims of crime precisely measure their suffering against those who inflicted it. The family of Ben Kinsella was affronted that the sentence of 19 years given to the killers only just exceeded Ben's age. Shareholders of HBOS who lost their savings do not wish to see the man they blame for their misery back on his feet so soon.

Yet business is inherently optimistic and forward looking. It will always write off the losses of the past. There is something charismatic and virile about an entrepreneur with a couple of bankruptcies under his belt, although things appear less romantic for those people whose money he has lost.

Scars on your back make you both tougher and more humble – another contortion that Hornby has to master. He and his fellow masters of the universe know now that they are not invincible. Cool-headed decisions on high-risk deals are no good if the decisions are lousy. You might as well fret and procrastinate, like Gordon Brown.

Yet caution does not build empires. The bad bankers happened to gamble the wrong way, but next time an arrogant innocent might be lucky. Risk and reward will always be a natural equation. No inventor, explorer or tycoon ever played safe. What all fallen professionals have in them is a wish to repair "reputational damage". It is a personal wish rather than a business philosophy. It is the hope that comes with experience.

Sarah Sands is deputy editor of the London Evening Standard

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