Comment: Andy Street talks French | Warren Buffett

Martin Flanagan
Martin Flanagan
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IT WOULD have been amusing if John Lewis boss Andy Street, having stirred up a cross-Channel hornets’ nest with his gratuitous fusillade against the French, had the elan on reflection to say Je ne regrette rien. Unfortunately, the retailer’s MD has taken some PR advice. He now says his remarks to an audience of UK entrepreneurs urging them to withdraw any investments they had in what he branded a dysfunctional France were “tongue-in-cheek” and he had “clearly gone too far”. Pity.

Piqued French pride and good-natured Anglo-Saxon boorishness are always an entertaining, if combustible mix. Napoleon dismissed Britain as “a nation of shopkeepers”, never dreaming that two centuries later one of them would come back to bite Paris on the derriere (“Gare du Nord… the squalor pit of Europe”). I suppose at least Street’s apology for his outburst beats traditional mealy-mouthed business and political excuses for being hung out to dry by the media of being “taken out of context” or just “lighthearted remarks at a private gathering”.

The horse had bolted, however. The French embassy fulminated. And fellow British retailer Kingfisher, owner of B&Q, said Street did not know what he was talking about when he said “nothing works” in France.

Appproaching the latter was clever thinking on the part of media, as outgoing Kingfisher chief executive Sir Ian Cheshire is to be replaced by the French female head of the company’s operations across the Channel.

Meanwhile, John Lewis is planning to launch a French-language version of its website with prices denominated in euros…

Tesco gaffe doesn’t take shine off Buffett

Refreshing. Renowed US investor Warren Buffett has admitted he made a “huge mistake” in building up a 4.1 per cent stake in Tesco through his vehicle Berkshire Hathaway, as problems mount on all sides for Britain’s biggest supermarket group. Tesco’s shares have slumped 45 per cent this year following a string of profit warnings from the grocer, the ditching of its chief executive Phil Clarke, and, the cherry on the cake, a £250 million accounting scandal.

Buffett, known statutorily as the Sage of Omaha, deserves congratulations for his candour on how he got it badly wrong. Perhaps we should not be too surprised as he has always been enjoyable pithy in his comments on stock-picking, stripping the trade of its self-serving mystique and gobbledegook and getting straight to the heart of investment.

Such as only investing in businesses he understands and believes in, unswayed by the waves of fashionability of turbulence.

Other investments Buffett has previously expressed regret on are the troubled airline USAir and insolvent utility TXU. Perhaps it is easier to be candid about failure when the vast majority of your investments, as with Buffett, regularly beat the market.

But his plain-spoken mea culpa to Berkshire investors contrasts so starkly with some of the obfuscating jargon used in much of the fund management industry.

“Building the portfolio from the bottom up” ie doing some research. “Benchmarking against the best” – please! “Generating significant alpha” – looking to outperform. “Focused on outcome-based results” – the performance of the shares we pick is important, rather than being dilletantishly diverting.

Mr Buffett, you have done us all a service, keep telling it like it is.