Anthony Hilton: Risk-taking is a recipe for disaster

If Oscar Wilde had ever heard of G4S, the security company, he might have remarked that to lose credibility once might be considered a misfortune, but to do it twice looks careless.

Anthony Hilton: Risk-taking is a recipe for disaster
Anthony Hilton: Risk-taking is a recipe for disaster

Last year the company launched an ill-prepared bid for a competitor, only to be forced by howls of shareholder outrage to abandon it. This year it has made a pig's ear of its contract to supply security guards for the Olympics. Some of us can remember the fiasco from the last Conservative government when it allowed so many prisoners to escape from its care that references to it got written into the script of sitcoms.

Who wants a security company that is accident prone?

These days everyone is aware of reputational damage, but this and other recent cases challenge our core assumptions about the values of these businesses.

One would think Royal Bank of Scotland had little reputation left to lose, but it has managed it. A prolonged computer failure prevented it from giving people their money when they needed it. Money transmission is a core competence of the banking system.

Banks' other core activity is honesty, which is why Barclays and Libor have caused such fury. It is one thing for the bank to be aggressive in the pursuit of profit; it is quite another for it to be caught doing things that raise doubts about the integrity and culture of the organisation.

Similarly GlaxoSmithKline, which was fined $3bn dollars in the US for taking doctors on expensive jollies so they would prescribe a drug to treat conditions in areas beyond those for which it had regulatory approval. The challenge is to our belief that drug firms will put the safety of their products before everything.

And finally BP. The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was an environmental disaster. But the damage to BP was that pride in its engineering blew up with that well.

Companies now take these risks because management has bought into the mantra of shareholder value and with it the need to deliver constantly improved returns, and as the pressure is transmitted people take short cuts. I fear disasters on this scale will become ever more frequent as long as that remorseless pressure exists.

Anthony Hilton, City commentator on London's Evening Standard

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