OPINION: CEO keeps his head at the Rock

It may be rather perverse to say so, but one of the few people coming out quite well from the Northern Rock debacle is its chief executive Adam Applegarth.

Hilton: City commentator, London’s <em>Evening Standard</em>
Hilton: City commentator, London’s Evening Standard

While Bank of England governor Mervyn King is having to bat off accusations (unjust in my view) that he should have curbed Northern Rock’s excesses when it could have been done without difficulty, as PRWeek went to press, no-one had yet lain a glove on Mr Applegarth.

Such profiles of him as there have been have stressed his cleverness, the fact that he still plays cricket for Sunderland, and basically that he is a regular, normal guy – not one of these hot-shot hedge-fund managers or City whizz-kids.

Given that the British press is not known for its benign attitude to losers, it is hard to pin down why this might be. Applegarth is very much the author of the bank’s misfortune, just as he was the author of its success.

He has fallen victim to what author Nicholas Taleb in Fooled by Randomness says is the besetting sin of financial markets: their inability to distinguish between skill and luck. People can appear to be skilful for a long time, says Taleb, when in fact they are just playing Russian roulette.

One day the reality of the risks they have been taking reasserts itself and they blow their heads off.

That is where Applegarth now finds himself. Having been fêted for some time as a genius by City analysts for the way he grew the business faster than anyone else, he is now sitting on top of a blown-up bank. Yet he has not been pilloried for it.

It helps that he worked hard in the good times to develop and maintain press contacts; now things have gone wrong, he still has a relationship of sorts with most banking correspondents.

But what I admire about him, and why perhaps his treatment so far has been fairly sympathetic, is that he has not hidden himself away.

So often in a corporate disaster the top man is nowhere to be found. Not so in this case.

Applegarth has not sheltered behind lawyers, nor has he sent his PR staff over the top to do his fighting for him. Instead, he has made himself available – not just for soft TV spots but also at the tough end on Radio Four’s Today programme. He has tried to lead from the front, and has tried to reassure the public that his bank will pull through. Given what he must be going through, he deserves credit for that.

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