Davos 2015 World Economic Forum: Top execs gather for grand old Duke of York
It takes a lot to overshadow a quantitative easing programme on the scale of the one announced by the European Central Bank yesterday, but the Duke of York’s private life somehow managed it.
Squeezed eight-deep into the Salon Rotary at the Belvedere Hotel, bosses from BP, Citi, Marks & Spencer and Diageo turned up to hear the Duke promote his entrepreneurship scheme and rebut recent allegations about his private life.
No sooner had he stopped speaking, than the assembled captains of industry lost interest and talked over the pitches of would-be business leaders.
Who said British chief executives weren’t prurient? In Davos, absent friends are talked about as much as present ones, but it was still unusual to note the extent to which a British businessman who has never attended the World Economic Forum (WEF) was on the lips of many UK delegates.
Sir Terry Leahy’s broadside against Philip Clarke’s “failure of leadership” this week has achieved the unexpected result of eliciting widespread sympathy for his successor.
It does seem strange that the man who wasted billions of pounds on failed expansion in the US and China, sanctioned a massive retail sale-and-leaseback programme and handpicked his successor, should feel so self-assured.
Among others not travelling to Davos were John McFarlane, chairman of Aviva, and Mark Wilson, its CEO.
Don’t expect Wilson to appear any year soon. Aviva has cancelled its membership of the WEF as part of a focus on greater cost prudence – and at €500,000 for a deal for companies to send five delegates, it’s not an inconsequential saving.
Yet McFarlane will find it difficult to avoid Davos 2016 when, as Barclays’ new chairman, he will host its traditional dinner at the Hotel Schatzalp.
The cost of attending the forum has focused the minds, and wallets, of delegates, with a looming 20 per cent hike in membership fees.
But what could be worse than paying the sum might be being barred from the event altogether.
That’s the fate which befell Ian Bremmer of Eurasia Group. In a note to clients this week, he wrote that this was the first Davos for nearly a decade from which he was absent. “Apparently, I shouldn’t have listed Switzerland as this year’s top risk,” he wrote.
A private dinner of chairmen of major multinationals (among them AIG, Bloomberg, HSBC) is one of the high-powered gatherings that take place on the Davos sidelines each year. Their discussion was not all mutual back-slapping. With the subject of rising inequality at the top of the WEF agenda, boardroom pay was always likely to be a prickly issue.
I understand the gulf between some of the UK and US attendees was as wide as the Atlantic. It may feel like a figleaf, but British businesses feel unable to exert downward pressure on remuneration while their US counterparts continue to sanction blockbuster packages.
At a party hosted by Sir Martin Sorrell and Jimmy Wales – the founders of WPP and Wikipedia respectively – late on Wednesday night, I bumped into a cheerful George Osborne.
“I’m surprised you’re here rather than getting an early night brushing up on questions for our interview tomorrow,” he told me. If that’s not a cheap intimidation tactic from the chancellor, I don’t know what is…