Sometimes business leaders want more than money: they want to be remembered. The Observer business agenda’s annual awards column endeavours to make that happen. Each year we recognise the corporate world’s most bizarre and bothersome “achievements” so that they may live on as long as newsprint and/or web servers shall last. Here are 2023’s lucky winners.
David Cameron award for most surprising comeback
OpenAI had the world at its feet in the year that everyone from your nan to hardened criminals pretended to understand artificial intelligence. So, what better way to celebrate household name status for its ChatGPT bot and an $80bn valuation than the four-person oversight board firing chief executive Sam Altman for “being not consistently candid in his communications” – only to let him back in within five days?
To be fair, it was hardly the first U-turn in OpenAI’s brief history: the company was started as a not-for-profit with lofty goals to “operate for the good of humanity”, before deciding sod that, let’s operate for the good of shareholders instead. Microsoft came in as a major investor and swatted away pesky existential concerns, reversing the decision to kick Altman out.
The Enron award for financial innovation
The ascent of Binance boss Changpeng Zhao – or “CZ” to his followers – to tech bro kingship seemed assured in 2023 after the collapse of rival cryptocurrency exchange FTX late last year, a downfall in which he played a key part.
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But the crypto news cycle moves faster than the rest of the world’s. In November, he proclaimed on the X platform: “Bitcoin is the greatest business model ever invented.” A week later, the US justice department politely disagreed, saying Binance had “willfully violated federal law that guards against money laundering and terrorist financing”, ordering it to pay $4.3bn and banning CZ from involvement in running the business.
The golden Monopoly board
The golden Monopoly board returns for a second year to recognise the most efficient rent extraction. Last year big business ripped off anyone who uses energy. This year: baby formula!
“Greedflation” – putting up prices faster than costs rise – has been a theme of recent times, even if economists in the US and Europe bickered over whether it was really a thing. (The Bank of England’s input was that it was limited to sectors like energy and retail – phew!) But one sector managed to stand out from the crowd in 2023: baby formula brands (dominated by Danone and Nestlé) are under investigation by UK competition authorities after managing to raise prices by 25% in two years – increasing profit margins during a cost of living crisis. Tasty.
The comment is not free award
Rupert Murdoch has carved his name in the annals of media history with a reputation for ruthless but shrewd strategy. Executives at his Fox News plaything did not get the memo, allowing the broadcaster’s onscreen, ahem, talent to mercilessly go after voting systems company Dominion for allegations of vote rigging so spurious they could only have been thought up by a certain former president. Unlike the unspecified woke blob or, say, a mostly non-white religious minority, big businesses have big, expensive lawyers.
The open-and-shut defamation case was diverted from court only by a $787.5m settlement, the largest ever from a media company. Murdoch and his Fox team were spared the indignity of taking the stand to test just how free speech can get.
Apology of the year
The UK water sector also put in a strong showing in the monopoly category, promising to raise bills dramatically while using British rivers for dumping in its most scatological sense. Thames Water boss Sarah Bentley acknowledged public anger by giving up her bonus in May, only to come back a month later with her salary doubled. A few weeks after that, she resigned.
Highly commended: Australian airline Qantas allegedly came up with a handy way of drumming up cash after the turmoil of the pandemic: a regulator in August claimed it had sold tickets for flights that would never leave. The flag-carrier airline apologised twice in a month, but customers may be surprised by its argument against the resulting court case. It insisted that “airlines can’t guarantee specific flight times”.
The Nick Leeson award for banking excellence
Private bank Coutts decided in 2023 to terminate the account of Nigel Farage after considering his alleged (and strongly denied) “xenophobic, chauvinistic and racist views”, only three decades after the rightwinger started his political career. The farrago may have deprived Farage of a fancy bank account, but Alison Rose, chief executive of Coutts’ less exclusive owner, NatWest, gave him something much more valuable: the moral high ground.
Rose breached customer confidentiality by discussing the case with a journalist. She paid the price for loose lips with her job, while Farage consoled himself over the invasion of his privacy with a £1.5m reality TV payday.
Rose shares the award with the leaders of Credit Suisse. In March chairman Axel Lehmann assured investors that the bank had “strong capital ratios, a strong balance sheet” three days before Swiss regulators forced it into a shotgun marriage with bitter UBS to prevent a full-on banking crisis.
Where are they now? Updates from previous winners
Bra entrepreneur Michelle Mone was not noted for modesty before the pandemic, but reporting by the Guardian and Observer (and perhaps some gentle encouragement from the National Crime Agency) persuaded her to reveal the extent of her public service.
Elon Musk. This year we have: torching a major social network, alleged (and strongly denied) antisemitism, fighting every union member in Scandinavia, and his mum telling off Joe Biden.
Sam Bankman-Fried took the stand at his fraud trial. Like the aforementioned FTX, it did not go well.