The MT Interview: Michael Woodford

February 27th, 2012

Management Today
By Matthew Gwyther and Elizabeth Anderson
Feb 26, 2012

Shad Thames, the enclave to the south-east of Tower Bridge (known as Jacob’s Island in Victorian times), has witnessed many crimes over the centuries. Dickens loved strolling through the squalor – in the company of the river police – to make notes. Arch-villain Bill Sykes from Oliver Twist lived here and Our Mutual Friend begins in the mist and murk of its creeks, as a lighterman tries to fish corpses out of the river and relieve them of their valuables before handing them over to the authorities.

Now it’s all tastefully Conranised into a design museum, florists selling Bird of Paradise blooms at £10 a stem and Le Pont de la Tour restaurant, where Tony Blair dined with Bill Clinton when it was London’s most crucial eaterie. The warehouses that stored cinnamon, cardamom, coffee and caraway seeds are now hip office suits and smart apartments. It is in one of these, a £2m duplex, that Michael Woodford awaits MT. Up we go in the lift. He asks us to remove our shoes.

The 51-year-old from Southend-on-Sea is the most celebrated international whistleblower of recent times. On reaching the top seat of the Olympus organisation, he exposed a fraud within the Japanese conglomerate that ran to $1.5bn. His story is filled with mystery, suspense, duplicity and betrayal. When he challenged the board, Woodford was humiliated, fired and run out of Tokyo. It was speculated that he was a stooge of the Chinese government. He was even subjected to psychological intimidation with a tunafish sandwich (more of which later). For the past year, Woodford says, he has been ‘living in a John Grisham novel’.

In this austere and suspicious era, with confidence low, whistleblowers tend to attract even more attention and approval. Moral indignation directed at business – especially banking – is so intense that there is huge admiration for those who take a principled stand against wrongdoing. Not that Woodford should be confused with the tented mob outside St Paul’s. He remains a thorough-going capitalist, but one with a highly developed sense of right and wrong.

In Japan, where the economy has stagnated for two decades, held back by antiquated business practice and dodgy dealings, the ‘Southend Samurai’ is now a legendary figure, mobbed by camera crews when he arrives at Narita airport. His relentlessness is exactly what some Japanese believe is needed to overcome the cosy, consensus-seeking approach to running businesses that has dogged their economy. Over here, he has been voted business person of the year by newspapers from the Sun to the Sunday Times, and even picked up the Corporate Sentinel award from the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners for ‘choosing truth over self’.

Woodford cuts a large and impressive figure in his well-fitting suit. At first, he is slightly stiff – wired and wary as he goes through his story yet again to fresh pairs of ears. But after a while he warms up and reveals himself as a driven, amusing, bruised and extremely impassioned individual. His striking face with small brown eyes and dark freckles gives a hint of the exotic (there is Tamil blood from a few generations back). The accent has mid-Atlantic elements but retains the odd flat vowel from the Merseyside of his youth.

What makes a whistleblower’s character? His wasn’t that happy an upbringing. He adored his father, an electrical engineer, but his parents separated when Woodford was seven and he moved with his mother from Staffordshire to Liverpool. In his modest new home the lavatory was outside, and he took a shower once a week at the municipal baths. The boy went from a home with classical music, books and security to free school meals and a second-hand blazer.

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