Michael Woodford, Live in Essex

I arrived at the venue about fifteen minutes before the designated start time of 2pm, and already in the front row sat Michael Woodford, former CEO of Olympus, the subject of the day’s 2-hour talk. Used to VIPs making grand entrances a tad behind schedule (later this day, Justin Bieber famously went on stage two hours later than scheduled much to the annoyance of the parents of his waiting tween fans) I should not have been surprised at Woodford’s excellent timekeeping. This was, after all, the first non-Japanese salaryman to have scaled the height of the corporation having started as nothing more than a salesman thirty years ago.

His appearance at our sister campus in Southend was part of the 2013 Essex Book Festival, and there was a book to promote at the bottom of it all: entitled ‘Exposure’, the book charts Woodford’s story of corporate fraud and poor governance in a culture underlined by hierarchy and respect for superiors. I was initally curious as to why the Southend Essex Business School campus was chosen over ours in Colchester for no other reason than the fact that accounting and corporate governance colleagues were based in Colchester; but the reason became quickly apparent – despite hailing from Liverpool originally, Woodford’s family planted their roots near Southend: his wife a teacher at the local high school, and his children growing up nearby.

As if to underline how unique an experience we were having, Woodford intimated that a similar talk he gave in the US a week earlier was attended by top corporate leaders paying at least $1,000 a ticket. In contrast, the tickets for this event went for seven quid. This was a man very much in the news, and of international stature whether there was to be an accounting scandal or otherwise at Olympus.

Unluckily for Woodford there was indeed an accounting scandal; a concerted effort over the years to hide accounting losses through the careful structuring of subsidiaries bought and sold at prices that did not reflect the entities’ true values. At least, that was what was on the surface. Beneath it lies an unproven hunch of the involvement of the Yakuza (the Japanese mafia) and money laundering activities.

Olympus: Not just cameras, then

How did a salaryman – that is, a company man through-and-through – rise up the ranks of a corporate giant? He started off at Olympus KeyMed – a manufacturer of medical devices. Olympus may say digital cameras to you and me, but for those in the medical profession, it refers to the company’s main cash cow: electro-optical products such as microscopes and endoscopes. He worked his way up the company, at one point heading operations in the Americas and Europe.

In his talk, Woodford never shied away from the fact that he could be a difficult person to work with, possessing a tendency to micromanage and having a work ethic that may not endear him to many. His guiding compass was simple: doing what felt right. In the first few weeks of him becoming the President of Olympus in February 2011, he proved his worth as a leader to the Japanese corporation by flying into earthquake stricken Tokyo amidst global fears over the Fukushima nuclear plants at a time when other foreigners were clamouring over each other to leave the country.

It was this sense of doing what was right that prodded him to continue to uncover the fraud first brought to light by news magazine FACTA. Unhappy that he was helming a corporation without really knowing what was going on, he demanded answers from key executives of the firm, only to be given the silent treatment. The more answers he demanded, the more bricks were placed in the stone wall the Japanese executives were building.

To complicate matters, the cultural nuances of Japanese society were very much at play within the corporation, and one was to always know one’s place in the overall grand scheme of things. His tenacity at getting answers backfired at him: requesting a meeting with the company’s then-chairman, Tsuyoshi Kikukawa resulted in a gentle but firm rebuke – he recounted how his request for a meeting was met, but at the lunch meeting, he was only served a tuna sandwich while Kikukawa enjoyed a plate of fine sushi. The twist in the knife at this gesture was the widespread knowledge of how much Woodford loved sushi – and so the actions served as a reminder that as one lower in the hierarchy, one does not simply request a meeting…

meme

Undeterred, Woodford demanded answers not only from the Olympus board but the company’s auditors who interestingly failed to spot the glaring attempts at accounting fraud which, later investigations revealed, had been perpetrated over a period of over two decades. Amassing evidence from various sources, Woodford presented this information through a series of letters that he wrote over the period of a few weeks. This did not go down well with the board, and ultimately he was fired from his post as CEO only after two weeks of being appointed (he became President in Feb 2011 while Kikukawa retained the role of CEO, but he was then made CEO by Kikukawa in August 2011).

There was much pomp and ceremony in his ousting, but even more worrying for Woodford was his safety: if rumours of Yakuza involvement were true, his personal and family wellbeing was on the line. He spoke of his request to obtain security detail: initially met with disbelief from the Belgravia police officer who thought he was quite mad, only to then made to realise by a superior that this was the face of someone much featured in the Financial Times.

Since Woodford’s sacking as CEO, Kikukawa has resigned from the Olympus board having admitted to perpetrating fraud, and the Olympus scandal has pretty much been laid bare. Limited time (and the need to not give away the whole story in the book) saw to a stop to his story there, but all things considered, Woodford’s whisteblowing amounted to something in the end: the fraud was exposed, and corrective action is being taken (to an extent). Subsequent arrests have been made in both Japan and the US as investigators attempt to get to the bottom of it all.

I sometimes wonder why Woodford was appointed by Kikukawa, going against convention to personally appoint a gaijin who managerial acumen was known to him. Did he think that Woodford would show deference and do as he was told? Or did he really want someone from the outside to uncover the mess that was already there, for the love of a corporation that was effectively his lifeblood. Woodford speaks of the real whistleblower, a person inside the corporation who lifted the lid to FACTA, a person who can never be named or identified in the interest of his own personal safety. One wonders..

But that aside, there are other fish here that need to be fried. The intricacy of the fraud. The ‘oversight’ of the auditors. The stonewalling. And most of all, the implicit cooperation at so many levels, inside and peripheral to the firm, which allowed this – and other fraud in other corporations – to be perpetrated, making reform a toothless tiger in the world of rampant capitalism where cash is indeed king.

Aventuras con es pescado

At the peak of blogging as a social activity (yes, those halcyon days), often one’s blog post would be in response to or inspired by the post of another. The nature of such posts could be friendly or confrontational, depending on how one reacted to the issues raised. At times serious, at others in jest – and sometimes in response to ‘tags’ as a result of meme posts.

I allude to that fact because this post is a throwback to those times: in other words, this piece is inspired by my erstwhile schoolmate’s entry about… gutting a fish. Yes, such a riveting topic, isn’t it?

Having managed to settle a loan over a year ago, I found myself with slightly more disposable income per month and decided that with this newly re-acquired spending power, I would eat more fish. I am a big fan of fish and other sea creatures as a means of food, but for the most part having been on a student-esque budget having fresh fish was a treat.

But buying a whole fish at the supermarket often meant that I had to gut the fish myself. I have asked the fishmonger to gut it for me, only for it to come back as fillets the first two times, and sans head the other. The fourth time I got a really weird stare from him when I asked him to gut it but leave the head on.

As you know, fillets are a waste if you’ve bought the whole fish, because so much gets wasted plus when you cook it, the absence of bones somehow takes away the flavour. So I had to, like it or not, get round to doing the gutting myself.

Gutted

I can’t remember how many times it took to get it right – ‘right’ as in it looked and felt exactly like how my mom does it. Because that was all I had as a means of reference. I would love to tip a hat to the Malaysian education system and say I learnt all this during KH classes, but let’s face it, I hardly ever turned up for those. If I did, it was to the woodwork rather than the cooking or needlework sessions; not because of anything other than the project we did during those woodwork classes were to be assessed in the exam, where as there was a separate practical for cooking closer to exam time. Also because during my SRP year you’d be lucky to see me at lessons anyway. It remains a miracle to me that I was not thrown out of school at the end of that year.

To a large extent it’s necessity that breeds invention, forcing you to learn things that could have, due to convenience, been ignored. I learnt to cook because I was hungry and take-out every night hurt my thin pockets. My repertoire of dishes grew from just sambal tumis (because this was my favourite food) to various other gulais, curries and concoctions such as masak merah or masak kicap; I can also scratch together variations of vegetable dishes. Yes, it took me 12 years to get there. I remember with fondness the days when everything I made was a version of curry: mushrooms on Monday, aubergines on Tuesday, salmon on Wednesday, sardines on Thursday…

I also learnt how to put together flat-pack furniture because I lived alone and there was no one to ask help from. (Also because it’s actually like building Lego except you can actually use it once you’ve put it together!)

Nowhere else have I seen this more in recent months than in my brother, who now lives with me. He may have thought that sharing a flat with an older sister meant he could come home to warm meals – hah! On the days when he arrives home after me, chances are he finds me playing some shooter game on the games console than in the kitchen slaving over his dinner. And so, I am glad to say that for his sake, he can actually now make a rather convincing nasi goreng. On occasion he has even returned the favour of my occasional cooking for both of us by making me breakfast (he’s a dab hand at french toast) or even dinner. Who would’ve thought..

In the UK over the past month there has been talk of cooking lessons as a means to combat obesity and encourage healthy eating. Coupled together with the recent horse-beef scandal, as well as the increasing danger of an epidemic of obesity, schools are encouraged to teach cooking to students at both the primary and secondary level. I reckon this is fair dinkums, but for me and my brother, none of our cooking skills came from school. Most – if not all – of this was learnt by peering over my mom’s shoulder as she lovingly put a meal together for the whole family, day after day.

Yo soy Idlan Zakaria

I suppose I am quite lucky in that my work allows me to fix my schedule for the most part, rather than the other way round. Sure, you’re at the mercy of timetabling for the most part when it comes to teaching, but outside of that, with some minor restrictions, you can schedule your office hours and your meetings in such a way that you are left with at least one day a week free for research.

I have a top-heavy teaching schedule, which means I have the bulk (99%) of my teaching in the autumn term, and pretty much nothing save a guest lecture or two in the spring term. This affords me two days of research instead of the customary one, although I only officially block off one day. I use the other as a spare day if there are some urgent matters that need dealing with (otherwise it’s mine).

The temptation, of course, when it comes to research days, is to not go to work at all – and this is even more so when it is winter. Travelling to work on the bus – I minimise cycling during winter due to untreated cycle paths and general wussiness about cycling in sub-zero temperature – takes about 40 minutes door to door and it’s not something I particularly enjoy (as opposed to when I am cycling in). That’s 80 minutes travel time plus give or take 10 minutes waiting time added on: 90 minutes better spent doing something else if I am working from home. Yes, I’m one calculative bitch.

But for those of us who have ventured down the path of ‘working’ from home – you would know that it isn’t quite what it’s cracked up to be. The lack of a office/home divide meshes the day into one unproductive stretch of bites of time half spent trying to get some reading or writing done, or trying to settle a chore. You end up looking at the clock, realising it’s 7pm and on both the chores and research count, you’ve done eff all.

Chores – or rather – things left undone, like dishes, laundry or the vacuuming, severely annoy me. And when I am at home I am pulled into doing things I wouldn’t do otherwise: like instead of just doing the dishes I scrub the kitchen floors; instead of folding the laundry I reorganise the whole cupboard. I would like to say that this is me procrastinating and trying not to get anything done work-wise, but the truth is I find it very difficult to get anything done if there are chores left unattended. And the very nature of chores is that it is repetitive: you cannot do the laundry today and expect there to be no laundry left for another week. Similarly, pots and pans and plates; or cleaning the bathroom. Yes, the rubbish needs taking out but once you do it isn’t very long before another sack accumulates: even more so that we are now a two-person household.

It used to be that the front room was my little ‘batcave’ – where I had my desk, my PC and space to work: but most importantly a door that separated at least that space from the rest of the house. Psychologically, for as long as that door was shut, I would only have to deal with the space in which I was in, and keeping that tidy and clean was a lot easier than the rest of the house where the living went on. Now that room is someone’s bedroom, and my desk, of late, has been the local Starbucks, sitting among college kids debating on whether Bieber or One Direction was the bigger loser.

We lack a space with good natural light and big desks where people can just while away time working away from work here in Colchester.

Of course I could go to the university library but then that would mean going to campus, right? Which completely defeats the purpose of trying to save on the commute time by staying at home. So of course, to get a handle on the issues at hand, I know that the biggest impediment to my having a productive research day is now travel time. And it is that which I need to solve. I need a cheap, convenient, speedy way to get to campus and back which will not have me risking my collarbone every time its icy. And so I have decided: I am taking a motorcycle license.

Watch this (rempit) space.