Stephen Foley: If only Fred Goodwin had done things the Mark Zuckerberg way...


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Mark Zuckerberg is about to join the 1 per cent. No, not that 1 per cent, not the one that Occupy folk have been waving their placards at.

The cherub-faced Harvard drop-out has obviously been part of that 1 per cent since your grandmother joined Facebook a few years ago. If the flotation of his company goes according to plan, Mr Zuckerberg will soon be joining the top 1 per cent of the world's billionaires. He will slot in at about No 9 on a list of some 1,200 lucky duckies.

Not so lucky for Fred Goodwin, who was being stripped of his knighthood at about the same time as Mr Zuckerberg was signing off on the stock market debut that will make him a gazillionaire. Don't let anyone tell you that there is class warfare going on, either here in the US or in the UK. The reaction to Facebook's flotation plan gives the lie to that one. As we enthusiastically counted up the millionaires and billionaires, and sized up this monster money-making machine, we really didn't hear anyone who begrudged Mr Zuckerberg a single one of his 28 billions.

As for Mr Goodwin, even those who hated the Forfeiture Committee's decision were hard-pressed to feel sorry for the former Royal Bank of Scotland boss on a personal level. There was only the excitement and the horror of discovering the power of a modern mob. For most people, taking back the knighthood doesn't begin to satisfy the demand for reparations; bricking the windows of his $2m mansion, as someone did in 2009, seems more like it.

There is more at work here than just the obvious differences: between a business success and a business failure; between someone whose work has enriched all our lives and someone whose handiwork impoverished Britain; between an entrepreneur who builds things and a financier who buys and sells the things built by others.

On both sides of the Atlantic, we are dividing up our business leaders into the "deserving rich" and the "undeserving rich", in the same way that the Victorians used to divide up the poor, and evolving a moral sense that society ought to deal with each differently. But it is more even than that. What we have seen this week is another division, between the "grateful rich" and the "entitled rich".

As more than a few people pointed out this week, Mr Goodwin was not the only reckless banker in Britain, let alone the only person in business and politics cheerleading the rise of unfettered finance. If he is wondering why he became the symbol for that wretched mistake, he will find the seeds many years before.

On paper, it is a surprise. The son of an electrician from Paisley, he is the quintessential boy-done-good, startling his bosses with his command of detail when he was an accountant working on the collapsed bank BCCI. Even his nickname, Fred the Shred, might have been neutral, if he hadn't accompanied his job-cutting prowess with an aloof personal style that turned off many underlings. The sense of entitlement – which so shocked Alistair Darling, who said Mr Goodwin had the demeanour of someone about to hit the golf course, even as his bank was collapsing – was a long time building.

The biggest problem is that Mr Goodwin had a cloth ear and a thin skin when it came to his personal public relations and the image of his bank. The public were questioning the grandiosity of RBS's ambition long before they worried about its financial soundness, and an ostentatious Edinburgh headquarters suggested hubris – rightly, as it turned out. When The Times published cheeky diary stories suggesting the roads around the HQ were being re-routed to satisfy the boss's desire to drive to work without encountering the unwashed masses, Mr Goodwin sued. The incident was more than a sense of humour failure; it showed he was willing to bully instead of debate and to hide behind expensive lawyers. It was a tactic he used again to hide an affair with a senior RBS colleague, over which he obtained a super-injunction.

Contrast this with Mr Zuckerberg, whose eight years in the public eye have been just as full of scurrilous diary items and critical commentary. There was even a whole movie suggesting Facebook was fashioned from the sexual frustration of an autistic nerd. Mr Zuckerberg reached not for his lawyers but for the popcorn, taking a gang of Facebook colleagues to see The Social Network when it opened.

A little detail inside Facebook's stock market prospectus this week is instructive. While Mr Zuckerberg has been taking a salary of $500,000 in its final years as a private company, he will cut this to a symbolic $1 after it goes public. When you are worth $28bn, what exactly is the point of a salary, of course. But symbols are important, as everyone has been telling Mr Goodwin this week.

Mr Zuckerberg and his class of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs – from the late Steve Jobs, through the founders of Google, to the next generation of world-changers that you haven't heard of yet – are studiously focused on what they are building, looking for all the world like they haven't had time to think about what they will do with all their money.

The flotation announcement this week has been an excuse to look through all those charming pictures of the early Facebook employees hanging out in graffiti-adorned offices, and watch again Mr Zuckerberg being interviewed for the first time, beer in hand, about this little site that he had started for Harvard undergrads.

The most charming thing of all is that he is not so different now. Give or take the odd eccentricity, such as dabbling with an eat-only-what-you-kill cooking policy, Mr Zuckerberg understands the importance of authenticity if you want to get the public to share their private data with you or – God forbid – to sanction a taxpayer handout.

Bankers have a harder time doing this since the industry is a confidence game, and financial strength comes from projecting strength – and what else is there to judge yourself on but the money you make? But catch them in an unguarded moment and some will tell you that their success comes as much from being in the right place at the right time, with the right amount of other people's money to invest, as it does from hard work and creative spark. An acceptance of this – gratitude for it – is still lacking in the City and on Wall Street.

As for Mr Zuckerberg, the hooded tops in which he always appears, like Mr Jobs's black turtlenecks, are more than an affectation. They are a reminder – to the public, but also to himself – that he is just that guy who started a tech company, like so many others did in 2004.

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