Michael Wilson says the old dogs can still teach us a few tricks. About humility, that is…
The conversation in the saloon bar of the Duck and Bucket turned, as these things do, to the elusive superstar who had returned to London from his usual foreign hideaway to claim his shining hour in the British media spotlight. No, not Bradley Wiggins, and not Richard Branson either. Andy Murray, then? Nope, you’re not even close.
Without very much doubt, the media circus event of the last week has been the end of Asil Nadir’ trial for theft. The former chairman of Polly Peck International had very graciously turned up in London to face 13 charges of stealing up to £150 million from his own company, and he had been duly convicted on ten of those counts, worth around £30 million. Those thefts, let us remember, had occurred way back in the 1980s – a time when you could really buy rather a lot of stuff for £150 million.
Timing His Exit Nicely
Anyway, after the noisy collapse of his pumped-up company in 1990, the urbane Mr Nadir had jumped court and skipped the country in 1993 to his homeland in Northern Cyprus – a country with which hardly anybody had proper diplomatic relations, let alone an extradition treaty. Which meant, in effect, that the fugitive businessman had been home and dry, and out of Britain’s clutches. He was a national hero in Turkish Cyprus. So what on earth had possessed him to come back and face the music?
A sense of fair play, my drinking companions asked? Hardly, I felt – that kind of a sense would have been more appropriate twenty years ago. A quiet assurance from somebody that justice would smile upon his little peccadilloes and that he’d be out in two years? None of us could work out why he’d want to swap a life of luxury for four brick walls at Her Majesty’s Pleasure. But, unlike my youthful companions, at least I’d had the advantage of being there the first time around.
A Strangely Old-Fashioned Scam
And what a time it was. One moment, Polly Peck had been a penny-share manufacturer of women’s nylons that brightened up the walls of London Underground with cringeably sexist images of leggy birds. The next, it had become a rampaging tornado of a business that sucked up TV and newspaper companies, consumer electronics, packaging giants, whole hotel chains, the Del Monte fruit company, and when knew what more besides?
That, in a nutshell, was the whole problem. Who did know? “Listen, Mike” said one of my colleagues at the Financial Times,” I have absolutely no idea how that bloke Nadir is doing this, but I want some of it.” And the poor sap went on to pile several thousand pounds that he could ill afford into a fabulously successful Ponzi-type scam that saw Polly Peck International’s market capitalisation go from £300,000 to £1.7 billion. That’s comfortably more than half a million per cent.
The rest, of course, is history. By the time PP International collapsed it owed £1.5 billion that it didn’t have and the game was up. Mr Nadir decided he wasn’t going to stick around.
Success Breeds Success
A Ponzi scam, did I say? No, it was a bit more gentlemanly than that, but no less devious. Of the £30 million theft that Nadir has been convicted of, only about half went completely AWOL. Around £10 million went to secretly buying up Polly Peck International’s own shares – something that will amaze anyone who’s young enough not to remember the Guinness trial.
Why would Nadir have wanted to do such a counter-intuitive thing? To beef up his company’s buying power in the merger stakes, of course, and to head off any hesitancy about the solidity of its figures. Nobody knew where all the money was coming from. The only thing they knew was that there was plenty of it, and it was all chasing Polly Peck. This man Nadir must be a human phenomenon, people thought. Alas, if only they’d known exactly what type of phenomenon….
And So To The Moral
But hey, that was 25 years ago, and we’re wiser and more sensible today. Our markets are better protected, and the scamsters are unmasked sooner. It just couldn’t happen, could it?
Try telling that to Bernie Madoff, the biggest magician of all time, who is currently serving 150 years for making $65 billion disappear – some of it from Warren Buffett’s bank account. Ask why Barings’ “magical” Nick Leeson was given free rein to break the bank, and how the infallible Jerome Kerviel at Société Générale managed to lose nearly $8 billion.
Three things immediately spring to mind. Firstly, all three of them managed it by fooling intelligent people who should have known better. Secondly, none of the last pair of fraudsters I’ve mentioned ever managed to enjoy much of their money – indeed, they never even saw it, because it all went toward covering up their mistakes, which must have been a terrifying experience at the time.
And thirdly, neither of them got away with it for more than a year or two. Which makes Asil Nadir’s 19 years on the run seem really quite a success. I shall look forward to the old rogue’s autobiography.
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