Former Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg and former AFL CEO Andrew Demetriou (Images: EPA/Supplied)

2020 has been a difficult year (except for really rich people, who appeared to come out of 2020 a lot better than they went in).

As most asset markets bubble away like it’s 1999, let’s take a moment to reflect on some of the characters who made this year even more special, with our 15th consecutive Crikey Business Awards.

The Sol Trujillo Award for CEO Payout of the Year

Always a hotly contested category, courtesy of boards’ unwavering willingness to part with shareholders’ money. The award this year, however, goes to beleaguered global aircraft manufacturer Boeing, who last year parted ways with disgraced former CEO Dennis Muilenburg and in the process allowed him to retain upwards of US$80 million in awards, share options, deferred compensation account and pension.

Muilenburg presided over one of the world’s worst corporate cultures, one so bad it led to literally hundreds of people dying due to Boeing’s dodgy planes.

Boeing employees allegedly scoffed when employees from Indonesian carrier Lion Air asked for more safety training. The next year, 189 people died on a malfunctioning Lion Air 737 MAX. This was followed by a devastating crash involving an Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX a few months later.

If the deaths of nearly 350 innocent people don’t do it, it would be interesting to know what constitutes being a “bad leaver” at Boeing. As a comparison — the US$80 million that Muilenburg walked away with was less than the US$50 million in total compensation the aircraft manufacturer set aside for actual victims of the 737 MAX disasters.

The Jack Grubman Award for Analyst of the Year

To Morgan Stanley’s James Bales, long-time fan of oft-shorted Corporate Travel Management (CTM). In March, while the world was collapsing and the World Health Organization had declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, Bales was still bullish on CTM, telling investors the shares were worth potentially $27 per share (they were around $5 at the time).

Even CTM super fan and shareholder Belinda Moore of Morgans had downgraded her price expectation to a mere $7.59.

Ironically, Bales appeared to get it more correct than most, with CTM shares appearing to buck reality and rebound to $18, thus confirming the long-held adage that the market can remain irrational far longer than one can remain solvent.

The Jim Crow Award for Libertarian of the Year

In its darkest hour, as COVID-ravaged Victorians’ basic civil liberties were slowly removed, the Victorian government passed the COVID-19 Omnibus (Emergency Measures) and Other Acts Amendment Bill through the lower house.

At the time, drones were patrolling Melbourne’s skies and mobile surveillance units were filming kids playing in public parks. Police would claim that mobile surveillance cameras “help to capture and deter breaches of chief health officer directions as well as other crimes and community safety issues”.

Amidst all this, one of Australia’s greatest defenders of civil liberties Julian Burnside had a few comments on the deprivation of rights, but not quite what we’d expect.

The legendary QC and unsuccessful Greens candidate told the Nine papers that taping kids in a park sounded “pretty sensible to me [and] the restrictions that have been imposed are justifiable, even though they involve breaches of human rights”.

A few weeks later, Burnside realised Victoria’s approach to policing may not be the best idea, and seemed to dramatically change his views noting that laws which allowed someone to be detained indefinitely without trial were “alarming”.

The Elizabeth Nosworthy Award for Director of the Year

Few have graced these august awards with the frequency of former dentures salesman turned AFL CEO turned company director Andrew Demetriou.

For Demetriou, whose finest achievement as AFL CEO was securing the services of Meatloaf to perform at the 2011 grand final, this year turned into something of an annus horribilis.

In May, Demetriou had to deal with the continuing fallout from the $147 million collapse of his nephew’s company Acquire Learning. Demetriou was chair of its advisory board and was paid more than $900,000 a year. Poor Andy was targeted by Acquire’s liquidators, is accused of being a shadow director and faces potentially millions of dollars in legal claims.

Normally, being chair of the advisory board of a collapsed business being investigated by ASIC which previously received the largest ever ACCC consumer penalty would be the worst thing that would happen to someone in a year.

Alas, that was merely the amuse-bouche. Things got far worse for the former North Melbourne wingman in October, when he was called to give evidence at the NSW government’s Crown Resorts inquiry.

Demetriou, who was paid $229,000 last year by Crown shareholders to ensure strong governance, was caught reading from notes while giving evidence about the role of independent directors at ASX companies, and what culture meant in a corporate governance setting.

To top it off, the inquiry discovered an email that Demetriou sent to Crown shareholder James Packer in 2015, where he noted that he “remain[ed] committed to serving the best interests of Crown and, most importantly, you”.

The Johnny Cochrane Award for Advocate of the Year

Imprisoned Australian journalist Julian Assange would no doubt be grateful for the incredible support he has received from former foreign minister Bob Carr.

While Assange continues to fight extradition to the US, Carr shrewdly warned that allowing the US to extradite Assange would set a precedent that could allow any Australian living abroad to be delivered to the US.

Assange would presumably have preferred Carr provide such powerful advocacy when he was actually in a position of power. As foreign minister, Carr claimed it “wouldn’t be a matter of concern to Australia” to make a case on Assange’s behalf. With friends like Bob…

The John F Kennedy Award for Taking Credit Where It’s Not Due

Success has many fathers, and in this case, the father of the year is soon-to-be former US President Donald Trump (who, to be fair, could have won this award thousands of times over).

Trump’s attempt to claim credit for the successful Pfizer vaccine was truly outstanding. The Pfizer/BioNTech candidate was the first COVID-19 vaccine to be approved for use in the US, and Trump rushed to take credit, claiming that the his administration had “given Pfizer and other companies a great deal of money, hoping this would be the outcome”.

Except, that wasn’t quite true — Pfizer rejected US government research and development funding, with that money instead going to rival firms Moderna, AstraZeneca, J&J and Sanofi-GlaxoSmithKline. It’s not without irony that the company to develop the first COVID-19 vaccine was pretty much the only one which didn’t take Operation Warp Speed money.

The Kanye West Award for Tin Ear of the Year

To multi-billionaire music and film mogul David Geffen. Geffen may have misread the room slightly when he posted on Instagram on March 29, sharing images from where he was isolating — on a US$590 million super yacht manned by 45 crew, floating through the Caribbean.

The Steve Jobs Award for Vindication of the Year

To Whitney Wolfe, the brilliant founder and CEO of Bumble, who proved that success is very much the best revenge.

Wolfe was controversially ousted from Tinder, a business she co-founded with Sean Rad and her former partner Justin Mateen. After she was pushed out of the business, Wolfe claimed Mateen subjected her to “a barrage of horrendously sexist, racist, and otherwise inappropriate comments, emails and text messages” and took her co-founder title, saying that having a female co-founder “makes the company seem like a joke”.

Not long after, Wolfe founded Bumble, which competes directly with Tinder and has now filed for an IPO at a US$8 billion valuation. Oh, and Rad and Mateen were booted from Tinder shortly after the business settled a lawsuit from Wolfe.

The Mayfair Capital Award for Business Model of the Year

To former Australian neo-bank Xinja, which was briefly valued at $1 billion in April after a mysterious Dubai-based private investor agreed to inject $433 million into the fledgling start-up.

After accepting more than $500 million in deposits, someone at Xinja realised that it was hard to create a thriving bank without a lending business.

Last week, Xinja announced it would hand back its banking licence and return deposits, blaming COVID-19. One suspects that the global pandemic (which didn’t seem to stop fellow neo-banks Volt, 86 400 or Judo from raising funds this year) had less to do with the collapse than Xinja not appearing to have a business model that included generating revenue.