UK: THE DISSECTION OF A REPUTATION. - Sir Geoffrey Chandler, former director general of NEDO and one-time director of Shell Petroleum, considers how businessmen have come to be held so low in the public's esteem.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Sir Geoffrey Chandler, former director general of NEDO and one-time director of Shell Petroleum, considers how businessmen have come to be held so low in the public's esteem.

Company Man: The Rise and Fall of Corporate Life

By Anthony Sampson

HarperCollins; 354pp; £20

Company man has never had a good press. He is grey, conformist; unimaginative, materialist - and male. A caricature perhaps, but if you want to know what the world thinks of your occupation look at the English language. In Roget's Thesaurus, that admirable guide to implicit social attitudes, you will find no legal occupation with more pejorative synonyms than business or trade: monger, hawker, huckster, pedlar, colporteur, cadger, sutler and cheapjack. And these are the people upon whose activities our national wealth depends.

If we harbour any illusions that we have outlived such prejudices, ask our brightest students. These, when asked which jobs made the most important contribution to the life of the country, ranked industrial managers and workers below doctors, nurses and teachers; below soldiers, sailors and airmen; below civil servants and lawyers.

Does it matter? Yes, hugely. Lack of reputation can kill. If industry wants to harness its share of the skills, intellect, imagination, ideas and idealism of the younger generation, reputation is vital. And if industry doesn't want these attributes, if 'company man' is the reality and not the caricature, we may as well shut up shop as our competitors attract the talents of their own youth to activities which create the wealth of nations.

The 1980s didn't help. It was possible for a brief period to hope that demographic trends, portending a shortage of candidates, might create a seller's market in which potential recruits would ask companies about their principles as well as their products and profits. But the recession put the lid on this; and while the ethos of that decade, making money the measure of all things, might be expected to prove a temporary blight rather than a chronic disease, it has been further fuelled by the huge salary increases for top people which have damaged the reputation of business as a whole.

Yet in all this there is a paradox. Innovation, enterprise, a sense of service, integrity are the hallmarks of good business leaders and successful companies. Why then should 'company man' sit so low in the social pecking order?

Anthony Sampson, the Anatomist of Britain, has now written under that title his most thoughtful and important book so far. He intermingles three themes - the life of men and women in companies, richly illustrated from contemporary novels; the role of business leaders, based on observation and interview; and the changing fortunes of the companies themselves. Through a series of vignettes he traces the changes which have produced a world in which ordinary company people are insecure as never before, while the corporate chiefs are more powerful and better paid than ever - even when they fail.

Many of Sampson's company men are better described as men in companies. The novelist Thomas Love Peacock, the philosopher James Mill, his son John Stuart, and the essayist Charles Lamb all worked for the East India Company, that precursor of the modern company. They provided glimpses of what life in such an organisation was like with a vividness beyond the reach of ordinary company man. It was Lamb incidentally who said, on being reproved for arriving late, that he made up for it by leaving early.

If the tension between the individual and the company provides a continuing thread, it is the extraordinary diversity of the protagonists which provides some of the most fascinating material of the book. All the chief actors on the scene believed themselves right, because everything worked - at least for a time and in its time: Henry Ford's dehumanising command system; the merger-makers; the corporate raiders. Each compelled obeisance to the fashions of the day, matching the ideological intransigence of politicians. An essentially empirical activity, ultimately dependent on harnessing individual ingenuity towards meeting the variety of consumer choice, was straitjacketed. While the generals came and went, it was the poor bloody infantry who lost out every time when their leaders proved donkeys.

There are heroes, not least the Japanese with their better communications, greater sense of common purpose, industrial literacy and regard for employees and community. And it is the Japanese who have recognised something that Sampson perceptively points out - that industrial miracles are the result of mobilising people rather than resources, and of motivating them with a sense of involvement.

The masculine defects of self-aggrandisement, insensitivity, status-seeking, aggression, arrogance and greed, writ large, have brought about the downfall of many corporations. Whether a number of women in top management would radically alter performance must remain a speculation. Given the persistence of discrimination against them, there is little immediate chance of this being put to the test.

If there is today a threat to the system it is not because it has not delivered. In the creation of wealth and the provision of goods and services, market capitalism has shown its capability. But if companies become increasingly privileged islands, regardless of the social costs they impose through the shedding of people to maintain their profitability, the licence to operate implicitly accorded to them by the wider community will he called into question. And it will be company man and woman, turning at last, who will lead the revolt.

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