Should we kill off unproductive companies?

The out-of-business business.

The out-of-business business has done a roaring trade this month, as a walk down any high street will testify.  But the staff of one closed store using their empty shop window to advertise themselves as available for work was a heartbreakingly public illustration of what each redundancy actually represents. Stories like that one have been painful to read, but it was both right and necessary that the media (including this newspaper) made space for the victims of these events.

Amid the concern for the newly-jobless, however, has come new talk around an old idea: the notion that some insolvencies can actually promote recovery in the economy. The theory is that labour and capital can be released from fundamentally unproductive companies, to re-enter the system in some more productive context.

For that to hold true in practice, however, the conditions must be in place for capital and labour to be reabsorbed into the economy. That means strong growth – assets find a market, staff find new jobs, creditors can offset loss. But an economy which is currently only adding new jobs at the rate of a few thousand a month will struggle to place the newly-redundant back into work. Therefore, one must sound a note of caution before we decide that unproductive companies should all be killed off.  If the current rash of large-scale insolvencies was indeed a side-effect of the recovery, there would be no cause to worry, but that is clearly not the case.  The economy is simply not adding enough jobs to re-employ those left without work.

By the time a business enters administration, it is generally beyond all help, but the end should not come as a surprise to those in charge. One reason that it might, is that the means used to measure productivity within companies are often inadequate, and provide an incomplete picture at best.  It’s fairly easy for the leader of a small business to look around his or her office and, from the ringing of the phone alone, gain a fairly clear grasp of the productivity of their company.  It’s far harder for the management of a retail chain with hundreds of locations and thousands of employees. That’s a major problem because, if business leaders cannot analyse productivity effectively, then many of their decisions will be based on little more than guesswork.

When attempting to arrest a slide in revenue, or a loss of market share, it ought to be relatively simple to identify the points at which productivity and effectiveness can be improved.  These might include things like closer centralised control of planned absences like holidays, to reduce reliance on costly agency staff; another might be better assessment of the peaks and troughs of customer demand.  Indicators like these allow a much clearer insight into whether problems are internal or external, and whether internal reforms, or more radical measures, are required to return the organisation to health. 

Similarly, the measurement (and projection) of customer loyalty is often left to the most basic analysis, while the factors affecting it are multifarious and complex. No business’s cashflow is immune from the impact of customer loyalty, whether positive or negative, and any kind of long-term planning demands some means to accurately predict what will motivate customers to keep spending.  Indeed, research suggests business leaders are not doing enough to impress their customers: less than half of UK consumers say they are satisfied with the service they receive from organisations including retailers, banks and phone companies.

Of course, some firms do fall victim to truly exogenic factors, and not all businesses can succeed, but those are largely the exception rather than the rule.  Bosses should not be spared blame if they do not do all they can to identify and fix inefficiencies within their business or, indeed, if they pretend to be surprised when their creditors finally run out of patience.

One of the most horrid features of the recent series of bankruptcies was the extent to which staff were kept in ignorance of the state of the company.  At the shop mentioned previously, employees only found out that the company had folded when a journalist phoned the store to ask for comment. That’s unforgiveable – when the writing is on the wall, executives should recognise it, and seek to wind up their company in an orderly fashion. 

Equally unforgivable is if they never made an effort to read that writing in the first place. Business leaders carry an inherent responsibility for those that work for them, ensuring that they stay productive and that the business keeps competing. That entails a duty to make mature decisions about the future of the business, and a duty to do so in full possession of the facts.

Claire Richardson is a VP at customer relations consultants Verint.

Closing down. Photograph: Getty Images
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder