Three corporate villains and a hero emerge in Covid crisis – Stephen Jardine

Companies like Timpson’s have shown they have ethical values in the coronavirus crisis, while others let themselves down, writes Stephen Jardine.

Mike Ashley apologised after initially saying staff at Sports Direct would have to work through the lockdown (Picture: Nick Ansell/PA Wire)

“What did you do in the war, daddy?” Seventy-five years ago that question helped sort the heroes from the shirkers and so it will again when the great coronavirus crisis is over. Right now we are learning what people are made of and when those people run major companies, the decisions they take can have huge repercussions.

Normally, bad corporate behaviour gets lost in the business cycle. Appalling decisions are forgotten if the dividend is big enough to keep shareholders happy. But now things are different. At a time of national emergency, the public expect companies to be the best they can be.

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Take Timpson. The humble High Street shoe repair and key cutting shop is fast turning into a national hero. On Monday, the family business revealed it’s paying out £500,000 a week to make the wages of staff on furlough up to 100 per cent. “It’s worth every penny to help our colleagues and their families through some tough weeks,” said owner James Timpson.

Rather than being self-serving PR, the gesture is entirely consistent with Timpson’s corporate values. The company recruits ex-offenders and offers them a fresh start on a rate of pay the business can afford rather than get away with. Staff get a day off for their birthday, a week off when they get married and use of holiday accomodation around the country. Small things like that have resulted in remarkable staff retention rates but what matters now is what their customers think.

When news of the furlough top-up payment was revealed, the response was huge. Timpson’s was inundated with messages of admiration. “The world post-Covid will remember, very positively, companies like Timpson’s. Others? Not so much. Let’s actually spend our £s wisely,” said one popular post. A member of staff tweeted he couldn’t wait to get back to work to generate turnover and repay the loyalty.

So if Timpson’s are the heroes, then who are the zeros? Sports Direct, Wetherspoon’s and Virgin are currently top of that list. As soon as the lockdown started, Mike Ashley ordered his sports stores staff to stay at work, claiming they were an essential service. Following a torrent of criticism, the doors closed and Ashley said it had been a “misunderstanding”.

While Timpson’s were busy topping up worker wages, Wetherspoon’s boss Tim Martin told his 43,000 staff he wouldn’t be paying his staff even 80 per cent until Government furlough cash arrived in the company account. He advised them to get a job with Tesco if they needed cash in the meantime. And finally, everyone’s least favourite billionaire Richard Branson infuriated customers by demanding a £7.5 billion Government bailout while staff at Virgin Atlantic were ordered to take eight weeks of unpaid leave when the skies started to empty.

Brand experts believe this stuff really matters. “The intelligent brands are the ones that realise they need to activate their purpose now. They need to communicate effectively and be authentic. In the long term they will gain,” said Debra Sobel, MD of the brand purpose agency Verity London.

None of us will forget the coronavirus crisis. The lockdown and endlessly escalating death toll will stay in our minds for years and companies that behaved badly will be paying the price for all that time.

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