Every year Crikey sums up the winners and losers from the year in business — and 2015 was another fine vintage of business masterstrokes, mishaps and corporate shenanigans. 

Press Release of the Year

Is awarded to one of the world’s pre-eminent automakers, Volkswagen, which earlier this year released a press statement that celebrated the German manufacturer’s “full marks [received] on codes of conduct, compliance, and anti-corruption, as well as innovation  management [and] climate strategy”. Ten days later, VW was found to have cheated emissions tests for years by rigging its diesel cars’ computer systems. Within days of the scandal erupting, the German icon lost around a third of its market value (around $30 billion).

Premature Ejection of the Year

Goes to former Rich Lister and Kathmandu founder, Jan Cameron. After her torrid experience with discounter Retail Adventures, Cameron appeared to strike gold once again with her stake in one of the ASX’s best success stories of recent years, Bellamy’s Organic. But alas, Cameron sold most of her shares before Bellamy’s share price took off, netting $36.5 million for her stake. Had she held on to her stake, those same shares would be worth almost $500 million.

Allegation of the Year

The winner is Omar Selemani, head of the Congolese Football Association. Selemani was none too happy at the US and Swiss raids of FIFA in May, claiming, “I would not want to be at the point of saying it is a political action, but the question can be posed. Is this an attempt at the image of FIFA? At the honor of the organization? We are at the level of supposition, so we can suppose this.” To answer Selemani’s question, it was unlikely that the raids were an attempt to destroy the images of FIFA, given it has done a pretty impressive job of doing that all by itself.

Bargain Acquisition of the Year

While the experts continue to talk of a bubble in technology valuations, that hasn’t stopped Facebook from undertaking one of the best acquisitions of all time. In 2012, it purchased then relatively small photo-sharing site Instagram for US$1 billion. At the time, Instagram had only 27 million users, and The Guardian claimed that the acquisition signalled the end of the tech bubble and compared it to Time Warner’s purchase of AOL. Fast forward three years and the app has 400 million active users who upload 80 million photos every single day. Citigroup has valued Instagram at US$35 billion. Not a bad return for three years.

Subediting of the Year

To Fairfax’s Sydney Morning Herald, which showed the wisdom of outsourcing its entire subediting team offshore. Reporting on the sale of Hoyts Cinemas, Fairfax said that “ID Leisure will retain Hoyts’ management, led by chief executive Damian Keogh and chairman David Kirke, with sources saying that the fund is supportive of their strategy of growing premium formats.” The Sydney Morning Herald managed to spell David Kirk’s name wrong — this might have be an excusable error had Kirk not been a former CEO of Fairfax.

Potential Class Action of the Year

To the legal eagles at Slater & Gordon, who might be able to arrest its flailing share price by commencing one of its legendary class actions — against itself. Slater & Gordon shareholders have good reason to be aggrieved, as the now global law firm’s market value has slumped from a handsome $2.7 billion to only $370 million. The major reason for the fall was Slaters’ ill-fated $1.3 billion acquisition of UK-based ambulance chaser Quindell. Only months after Slaters bought the firm, the UK government announced it would be banning small whiplash claims — which just happened to make up most of Quindell’s revenue.

Book Cooking of the Year

To Australia’s second-largest company, Westpac, who undertook an Enron-style sleight of hand to ensure that its favored executives received tens of millions of dollars of bonuses. Westpac thought it appropriate to record $354 million in IT write-downs “below the line” and outside its cash profit result. The move was contrary to accepted practice (other banks ensure that IT write-offs are included in cash profit) and had the convenient result of meaning that executives would get their bonuses paid. That was because Westpac only made its targets by $160 million, so had the write-off been correctly placed within cash profit, then the executives wouldn’t have hit their bonus targets.

Law Enforcement Body of the Year

A perennial winner, ASIC has once again come up trumps, announcing that in the six months ending December 31, 2014, the corporate watchdog charged a grand total of 14 people in Australia with criminal charges. This includes all forms of corporate and employee fraud. By contrast, in Sydney alone, police have charged 8021 people with jaywalking since November 2013.

Lawsuit of the Year

To Melbourne-based business consultant Adam Fox, who launched legal action in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal against Menulog for allegedly misleading consumers as to a discount on takeaway Thai food. Fox claimed that he was unable to obtain a 10% discount on his order of Thai takeaway as he failed to meet the minimum order of $30. The amount in question was $2.70. Even if Fox had been successful in his claim for the $2.70 discount, VCAT is a no-cost jurisdiction, which means that Fox would be responsible for the $58 application fee regardless of whether he won or lost the matter (nor would Fox be able to claim back the $5 in train fares required to get to the tribunal). To make the matter worse, after paying the application fee, Fox’s application was dismissed after he failed to appear for the hearing. 

Advice of the Year

To Chamath Palihapitiya, one of the first employees of Facebook who later became a venture capitalist. While the investment community in the US is famous for encouraging entrepreneurs to “fail fast”, Palihapitiya was perhaps a little less generous in his analysis, noting that “it’s fine [for startups] to fail … but if you fail because you didn’t have the courage to move to Oakland and instead you burned 30% of your cash on Kind bars and exposed brick walls in the office, you’re a fucking moron.”

Mea Culpa of the Year

To Aussie-born Dow Chemical chief Andrew Liveris, who, aside from shepherding the industrial giant into a US$120 billion merger with Dow Corning, suffered the ignominy of having to repay US$719,923 for expenses that weren’t technically “business related”. One of the expenses related to Super Bowl tickets — in which Liveris demanded that he not be seated anywhere near Dow customers, just in case that meant he had to do some work while at the game. Another incidence related to $90,000 worth of Grange that somehow ended up at Liveris’ house. In return, Liveris got a US$25 million salary, use of Dow’s US$85 million Gulfstream and a role advising the Obama administration.

CEO of the Year

The antithesis of Liveris’ high spending ways is Kmart’s Guy Russo, who gets around in $10 jeans and a $5 polo shirt bought from Kmart itself. Russo took over Kmart in 2008 when it was virtually bankrupt. Russo quickly deleted 70,000 lines (it now stocks around 50,000 lines) and reduced the level of branded items to only 5%. Under Russo, a business that was losing money last year made $432 million, with a return on equity of 32.9%. That means in less than seven years, Russo has created about $10 billion of value for parent company Wesfarmers. The former McDonald’s part-timer who rose to become CEO has probably been one of Australia’s best ever executives and one of the best blokes in business. In his spare time, Russo operates 44 orphanages in China with his wife.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey