What Mark McInnes Taught Us About Sex & Ethics

Sex &the Ethics of Big Business: The lessons Mark McInnes taught corporate Australia

It was a stifling day. The kind of day that leads to thoughts of beaches and cooling swims.

‘Did you hear about the boss and the girl in the perfume department?’ the department store manager asked me. ‘Apparently, he just came onto the ground floor on Friday night, he’d already had a brand new barbecue loaded into his boot – right off the floor mind, without any paperwork – and walked up to Jenny, you know the pretty blonde one, and said “You’re coming home with me for the weekend, darling” and she did. Just like that, she went with him; scared about losing her job I s’pose.’

The story that swirled through the department store corridors on that summer’s day was not told yesterday, or even last year. It was more than thirty years ago; told to me as a young marketing executive at Myer. Apocryphal or prescient, it doesn’t matter. It became a stitch in the fabric of another time, unthinkable by today’s standards.

This culture of powerful men at the top considering themselves above ethics and even the law was again played out in 1997 when the managing director of Coles Myer, Brian Quinn was convicted and sent to prison for ‘defrauding Coles Myer of $4.26 million over 10 years’. Quinn’s wife knew the maintenance boys at Coles Myer by name. They were frequently at the Quinn mansion doing this refurbishment or that extension.

This was accepted practice when you were in charge; one of the perks of the job. Brian Quinn must have sat in his cell wondering what on earth he had done wrong. After all, this was how his boss had behaved. And his boss’s boss before him.

Brian Quinn had exhibited moral blindness. And it was no longer acceptable.

Then on a Friday in June 2010, as we approached the winter solstice – that darkest time of the year – one of Australian retailing’s brightest stars faded and fell. Mark McInnes was out of a job. This was the man who, at 37, had taken over the reins of the troubled David Jones department store chain and within seven years returned the brand to prominence and profitability. These were the halcyon days of David Jones, the like of which would never be seen again.

McInnes is reported to have behaved inappropriately towards a young woman in the marketing department. Moral blindness was back.

The issue here is not the remarkably talented Mr McInnes and his self-confessed behaviour, it is more a question about the kind of culture that enables it.

How did the board of Myer not know about the CEO and the perfume assistant thirty years ago? Everyone else knew. And, how did the Coles Myer board not know that Brian Quinn was siphoning off millions of dollars to renovate his home? Everyone else knew.

It’s time for boards to create a new C-level position on the executive floor: the CCO. We already have CEOs, CFOs, COOs, CIOs, even CMOs, and now it’s time for the Chief Culture Officer to report directly to the chairman.

None of these corporate and personal disasters happened in a vacuum, and it’s time for boards to put a collective finger on the cultural pulse. However, the CEO is hardly the right person to play that role.

In a corporate culture, success comes first to those who chart the ethical shifts. Measuring and mapping power shifts, taking the pulse of the culture, is the responsibility of the board. Corporate governance is just that, governing the corporation, and that goes well beyond the balance sheet and brand reputation. It’s time for a mechanism to be put in place that puts a human seismograph into the corridors of power and into the functions and parties that reflect the corporate culture, to report back to the board without fear or favour.

Mark McInnes is a good man. Not a perfect man, but a good man just the same. He is intelligent, talented and a born leader. Someone should have taken the temperature, overhead the talk in the corridors – there was, after all, plenty of it – and counseled him on his behaviour. Then the man who had made the department store group the darling of the retail economy may still be at the helm. And David Jones would not have become the cot case it is today.

No one wins here. Not the young woman in question, not McInnes, and certainly not a once great brand.

Those who ignore history are doomed, they say, to repeat it. And on current trends it looks like we’ll be seeing repeats for another thirty years unless boards start to listen to the seismic readings from the shop floor.