Monday, 6 October 2014


Just a short time ago we accepted as a universal truth that a company belonged to the shareholders and since the shareholders wanted dividends our job was just to deliver profit.

Go back longer and owners of companies stumbled upon the idea of adding value to make a buck (or if you were Henry Heinz a bean.) Take a commodity, add some magic ingredients, trumpet your existence and make sure you could hardly move without finding it. Result a profitable, valuable brand.

A long time ago a less subtle technique for achieving wealth was used. Smash and grab. Attila, the Romans, Walter Raleigh, Thomas Cromwell, the British Empire, the American Railroad entrepreneurs all went out and took what they wanted - money, jewels, property, land and slaves. Some Russians copied this ‘honourable’ activity after perestroika and the Yeltsin liberation of state assets. These oligarchs haven’t exactly worked for their wealth. Most have simply stolen it.

The game’s changing. After the banking crisis and the astonishing valuations of high tech companies there’s a widespread reaction against corporate wealth. As I stumble in search of Nurofen through crowds outside Boots baying “pay your taxes” I realise how much it’s changed.

Quite simply the consumer of tomorrow will say in the cliché from the 1976 film Network:

I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore

(I just watched Peter Finch in the film ‘Network’. Look at the clip on YouTube - it’s still chilling nearly 40 years on.)

Ron Paul, the former US Republican congressman and two-time Republican presidential candidate said “Don't steal - the government hates competition” and if you look at what governments in the past have taxed he has a point. In the UK fireplaces, hats; in Russia beards; in Ancient Rome urine (which was used in leather and the treatment of cloth). The Americans have been and in some States are no less inventive. There’ve been taxes on blueberries, pumpkins - those going to be carved, body piercings and in 2005,Tennessee began requiring drug dealers to anonymously pay taxes on any illegal substances they sold.

The world operates globally yet small players in a given market like UK retail can shake the foundations, the might of Google and Amazon are being increasingly criticised on the grounds of their failings as good citizens and respectable occupations are shifting.

A French patisserie maker came to live in the UK recently to set up business.  This new neighbour was invited to a drinks party - “what do you do?” someone asked. “Je suis un…baker” Horror! “What’s wrong?” he asked. “We don’t like bankers” they said “I’m a baker not a banker” he protested. They gave him more to drink and embraced him fondly.

Slowly we are beginning to treat big wealth like big anything.

So is this the age of the baker?

Maybe not but it’s certainly an age of refreshed values as Wonga found out last week. Their age of funny-money is ending. And shortly the slogan will read “Wonga is no longer”.

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