Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Fault, responsibility and strategy - or none of the above...

Dear oh dear - what a mess.

Ian Austin, the former Managing Partner and Executive Chairman of Halliwells, has been talking to "The Lawyer" (see here for their story) - or rather he has been giving his version of their descent into administration. It turns out that it was the partners' fault, or the external consultants, or the boards' or... someone else's decision or fault. I quote one example from Mr. Austin:
the decision to move into Spinningfields was a decision taken by a board, by external consultants [Sheppard Robson] in conjunction with group heads. This was not a decision of my own making..
What? He was the Managing Partner - his is the responsibility, whether or not it was his fault. He is also quoted as saying that the loss of the insurance team in December last year was the "straw that broke the camel's back". One of the comments on the story points out that his firm was still recruiting & promoting 6 months later.  In a limited company or a PLC surely this would be "trading insolvently"...?

I suppose I should be more shocked at the lack of responsibility that is shown here and at the lack of strategic thinking that allowed the firm to distribute £15million to the equity partners in 2008 (keeping  a whole £5million for investment in the future - well in the firm's future). Mr. Austin's excuse/justification for this seems to be along the lines of "the money was there and we wanted it" or "at the time everything looked rosy". On a much larger scale this is like saying "I didn't need an umbrella - it wasn't raining yesterday. It's not my fault I got soaked". I'm not sure this even qualifies as short term planning.

As I said in a previous blog (see here), one of the most shocking aspects of the Halliwells debacle is that the equity partners walked into new jobs - the very people responsible for the mess are those least affected by it. Mr. Austin himself negotiated his own safe transfer from the sinking ship before the deal on Halliwells' assets was completed - an action he justifies as being "...the right thing for me."

That last phrase sums up the state of management and ethical behaviour in Halliwells - the equity partners removed £15million of cash from the firm 18 months before it went bust because they wanted it; the same people walked into new roles, leaving trainees and junior staff to their fate, because they could and it was the best thing for them. With that level of strategic thinking and personal thinking rather than firm thinking, my only wonder is that it took them so long to go bust. I'm sure Manches are heaving a huge sigh of relief that they didn't merge (or buy) with Halliwells in 2009.

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