The Findus horse meat scandal is “Britain’s biggest food fraud”, according to the Mirror. It’s certainly breathtaking in scale. 12 days ago the company discovered its food supply chain was contaminated. In the Soho Square office of Findus UK pandemonium doubtless broke out.
But those who make big bucks from selling cheap food to the masses will have had contingency plans. Their crisis management manual will have been dusted off. The easiest decision would have been to recall the product, empty the supermarket shelves and give a proper explanation to customers of why the product fell so short of the “brand promise”.
Sitting in his 43rd floor office in Manhattan, looking down at the people below him the size of ants, sits Dale Morrison. He is a very rich man.
The increasingly frantic tone of the emails in London must have disturbed him. He might even have looked on Google maps for the Comigel food processing plant (it’s in Luxembourg). And maybe checked where England is. I have a hunch he’s never personally visited the Comigel plant. I am relatively certain that the output from the Comigel plant – the Findus Beef Lasagne 320 grams, 360 grams or 500 grams – is not regularly enjoyed chez Morrison. Mr Morrison never has to balance the weekly shopping bill by feeding his kids warmed up horse lasagne at £1 a throw.
On that 43rd floor, though, it wasn’t the ants below that Mr Morrison was worrying about. It would have been the bar charts on the computer screen detailing the impact of the cost of a potential product recall across the pond. Mr Morrison had other people he needed to care for. His fellow investors who had recently organised a complex refinancing of the troubled Findus group were expecting big things. They were not expecting a disastrous recall unaccounted for in the financial projections.
Back in England, on the estates of West Bromwich and beyond, local residents had no idea of the increasingly frantic corporate machinations taking place on at least two continents.
Up and down the country, people are seeking to shave a few pennies off the family budget as David Cameron’s cuts really begin to bite. And in a funny way, when you think of it, the choice between a Findus meal and, say a Tesco own label meal is an easy one. You pick Findus because after all, Findus has had a trusted place in British kitchens for decades. The crispy pancake is almost as classic as fish and chips.
I don’t think Mr Morrison fully understands just how much the Findus brand was woven into the daily life of our nation. Which is a shame because the brand is no more. He has transformed it into a synonym for horse meat. Before long, I suspect, people will talk about “doing a Findus” – promising quality but delivering shoddy goods.
Findus has always been a controversial brand, even since “Findus heir” Geir Franzen relinquished control in favour of the Wall Street money men. Franzen was not loved by his workers, who had to read reports in the gossip pages of his antics with Sarah Ferguson, while the failing company was sacking hundreds of British workers.
It turns out that the Wall Street money men are no better. Those bar charts and whizz kids and lawyers and expensive offices in Manhattan all contributed to one single catastrophic decision, or rather non-decision.
There came a point when Dale Morrison knew he was selling horse meat labeled as beef. But he knew that saying so would cost him money. So instead he did nothing, allowing thousands of people to buy and eat horse meat lasagne when they thought they were buying a true product from a trusted brand.
We’ve seen a lot of corporate failure in our country in recent years. There is one distinguishing feature that is shared with all these previous company scandals: the ants get trod on, while the big guys get away with slapped wrists.
This time though, there is a very clear point of decision making. The line of accountability is dead straight. It’s Mr Morrison, the private equity specialist, who should take responsibility for a massive corporate failure. He’s the boss. And for once, the little guys can fight back.