I read an interesting article in The Times recently on Fred Goodwin (Fred the Shred) and his unhappy progression to the ruination of our banking institutions.   He reminded me of a businessman I had the misfortune to come across at the end of my working career, (before I cheerfully abandoned that role to have children.)

We were a  profitable section of an American multinational, with 500 or so employees, and I was PA to the man in charge of it.   I had been closely in his confidence so I understood his concerns and how he thought, his plans and anxieties about the business, its profitability, and the welfare of its employees.   He was not an empathetic man, but he was conscientious and well respected.

One day our American overlord arrived on a scheduled visit.   He always reminded me of a piggy bank I had as a child, round, rotund, with his hands behind his back, declaiming.   Anyway his visit passed as usual, except that as I stood in my office and watched my boss wave Piggy off in the staff car, I got the distinct impression (which I knew was not physically accurate) that he was actually giving Piggy the fingers.   When he came upstairs, I said  to him: “What went wrong?”   He looked out of the window for a long time before he replied that the American —- (he didn’t say Piggy but a much less acceptable word) had advised him at the very end of the day that a new incumbent would arrive shortly from another part of the empire to take over the post my boss had held for some years, but there was nothing to worry about because they were going to re-assign him to Head Office.  He swore me to secrecy and then followed a terrible time.

Under the stress of this, my boss had what amounted to a nervous breakdown;  refused to acknowledge what was happening;  completely lost his normal perspective;  proposed running off with me to Australia, and altogether behaved in a manner utterly out of character.   I was engaged to John who  also worked for that business so I had his support, but (apart from John) I was unwilling to break my promise of secrecy although time was marching on, and the incumbent was already in touch with me about looking at houses etc.  No official announcement had yet been made.

Eventually I confronted my boss.   I asked, had he informed his wife?   No, he had not.   I said he absolutely must;  she would help him.   He refused.   This was a Friday.   I said if he did not inform her over the weekend I would have no alternative but to go and see her myself on the Monday to ask for her help and advice.   It would be extremely humiliating for her to hear this news from me instead of from him, and it would represent disgraceful behaviour on his part.    He blustered and argued but I stood my ground.   Over the weekend he told her.   She worked her magic like the wonderful lady I knew she was, and he returned on Monday, apologetic for his behaviour to me and much more like himself, though he still refused to have anything to do with the incumbent and I had to announce his arrival and make arrangements for him.

The much anticipated incumbent duly arrived.   We never found out why he had been chosen or who had instigated his promotion.   (None of us had ever heard of him.)   He was  exceptionally handsome and vain with it, and one of the dullest and least rewarding men I have ever had the misfortune of dealing with.   I thought of him as The Pretty Face and never an idea seemed to disturb its beautiful contours.    Like the ill-fortuned Fred, he seemed to have no idea whatsoever of the duties and responsibilities of a man in charge of a section of the business.    He had no technical understanding of the business itself, nor much interest in it;  nor did he think of future plans and strategies.   He seemed obsessed by the appearance  of things (including himself.)    The first  things he did on arrival were order a new car and new office furniture.    He would have passing fixations on things of no consequence whatsoever – how cars were parked;  the layout (not the content) of letters;  the use of commas.   He had a  campaign about Good Housekeeping which meant basically that any old scrap metal lying around had to be painted in our corporate colours.   He would appropriate employees from their work to undertake personal tasks for him.

Needless to say he did not relish having me in his office, and so he ‘promoted’ me to be the administrative secretary of various committees where I learned how to write what should have been said instead of what had been, and discovered what a powerful combination a good chairman and secretary of a committee were if they worked together.     Meanwhile he chose for his office someone who would have no opinion on him and his duties, whom he could affect with his looks, and who was altogether more adoring than I would ever have been.

When, from Mt Olympus, another pronouncement despatched him to another continent – we never found out why – I think we were all mightily relieved to see the back of him, and the only lasting memorial of him was the heap of painted scrap in our yard, which in its surface prettiness but total uselessness was a good metaphor for him.   I cannot think of a single positive contribution he made during the months he was with us  – other than that he raised the heartbeat of a few silly girls.

After he left us, we were sold to another multinational.   This had been nothing to do with him – he didn’t take action on anything unless it appeared in his mirror.   We never heard what became of him, so he did not achieve the notoriety of Fred the Shred, but then he didn’t do as much damage:   he was on a minor scale.

How these people rise to prominence is utterly mysterious, because they really are completely useless, and often leave a succession of ruined businesses in their wake.

I heard it said that the first RBS heard they were getting Goodwin, was when they got an unexpected telephone call from the bank which then employed him.   They could hear in the background sounds of revelry and rejoicing, so they asked, Why the party?   It’s because, they were told, Goodwin is leaving us to come to you.   So that was how their ruin fell upon them.