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 girls in the perfume department?’ asked the department store manager. ‘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 blond one, and said “You’re coming home with me for the weekend darling” and she did. She went with him; scared about losing her job I s’pose.’
The scandalous story that swirled through the department store corridors on that hot summer’s day was not whispered yesterday, or even last year. It was told more than thirty years ago. Told to me as a young marketing executive at Myer. Apocryphal or prescient, it doesn’t matter. It became part of the folklore of another time, a time in which strange behaviour happened, 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 then boss of Coles Myer, Brian Quinn, one of the brightest and best, was convicted and sent to prison for ‘defrauding Coles Myer of $4.26 million over 10 years’. Mrs Quinn knew the maintenance department boys at Coles Myer by name. They were frequently at the Templestowe mansion doing this refurbishment or that extension.
It’s what happened when you were the boss. Standard practice, one of the perks of power. It had been the way of the world for decades. Brian Quinn must have sat in his cell wondering what on earth had happened.
What happened was that the ethics of corporate governance caught up and rolled over him like a steamroller. That his boss and his boss’s boss had done it was irrelevant. He would have marvelled at how it could all turn nasty so quickly.
Then on a cold 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, 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, was out of a job.
McInnes is reported to have behaved inappropriately towards a young woman in the marketing department. It seemed strange behaviour, unthinkable by today’s standards, was back. After thirty years. Nothing much, it seemed, had changed.
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 boss and the perfume assistant thirty years ago? How did the Coles Myer board not know that Brian Quinn was having millions of dollars of work done on his home at company expense? 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 happens in a vacuum and it’s time for boards to place 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 counselled him on his behaviour so that the man who made the department store group the darling of the retail economy was still at the helm, not on the corporate fringe wondering what could have been.
No one wins here. Not the young woman in question, not McInnes, not the executive team at David Jones. And certainly not the board.
Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it, so the aphorism goes. 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 shopfloor.