Lori Anderson: Wrong to love ‘Sir Fred’ but he is quite tidy

Fred Goodwin. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Fred Goodwin. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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Clutter and chaos make me ill, just like public enemy number one, 
writes Lori Anderson

TOWELS. Fluffy white towels and their precise origami proved the downfall of Julia Roberts in the film Sleeping With The Enemy, at least in the eyes of her abusive husband. The exact positioning of freshly laundered hand towels on the bathroom rail and within the linen closet was of paramount importance to him, and eventually Roberts fled to escape his psychotic wrath over towels that had quite obviously hung without the aid of protractor. If only she had been told that towels like to sit with the rounded folds facing outwards.

When it comes to home interiors and other environments (car, yacht, private plane) clutter and coloured chaos makes me rather ill.

As Benjamin Franklin said: “A place for everything and everything in its place,” and if that place is beautiful and accompanied by elegance and serenity then so much the better. Imagine my surprise this week to discover that an ally in my infinite war against untidiness was public enemy Fred Goodwin.

A new book called Make It Happen, by Iain Martin, has revealed a hitherto unknown side to Sir Fred Goodwin as he was so monikered at Royal Bank of Scotland.

Just like me, Sir Fred – as was – just couldn’t be happy until everything was just so.

When Goodwin took over as chief executive at Clydesdale he became obsessed with the cleanliness of the bank’s many branches.

He insisted that too much paper was being strewn around and had a curious hatred of Sellotape.

The book reports: “In the middle of a meeting with one executive, Goodwin took a telephone call from his mother. She had been walking past his head office in St Vincent Place, Glasgow.

She had noticed that on the steps outside someone had dropped a cigarette butt. Goodwin immediately phoned another senior executive, ordering him to have the offending piece of litter removed from the premises without delay.”

Apparently he was also obsessed with small details, such as the colours used in advertising campaigns, and one year detested the choice of RBS Christmas cards so intensely that he insisted: “That’s it, I’m taking over direct control of the production of Christmas cards.” A task not usually on a chief executive’s list of responsibilities.

He was the Tom Ford of banking.

Filing cabinets were a particular bête noire, as he hated the fact that the flat top became a residue for dumping files, coffee cups, books and assorted clutter.

His solution was ingenious. RBS staff were ordered to source filing cabinets with rounded tops from which tea cups would topple and lazily discarded sheaves of paper would slide to the floor thus shaming any culprit who illicitly viewed the top of the filing cabinet as an extra shelf.

“Somewhere in a warehouse are thousands of old flat top RBS filing cabinets that were not Fred-compliant,” said an RBS manager.

Goodwin also insisted that the colour of the bank’s fleet of chauffeur driven Mercedes S-class cars had to be Pantone 281 as it was a precise match for RBS’s corporate blue, while the colour of beige used for the car’s leather interior had to match the carpets in the management suite of offices.

When I read this particular anecdote I had to put down the paper and utter a line rarely heard in recent years: “I think I love Fred Goodwin”.

How can anyone not admire a man so dedicated to bringing harmony and an over-arching corporate theme to colour?

Would the bank’s customers have preferred their executives cruise the streets of Edinburgh in a vulgar mish-mash of colours or in the same livery as their rivals?

I have now decided that it is a great pity that I was never invited to a corporate reception at Gogarburn, where I could have sampled the sushi from Fred’s “scallop kitchen”, then afterwards stroll from RBS’s executive suite to one of the bank’s chauffeur driven Mercedes to be whisked home in a purring preppy cocoon of blue and beige.

Steve Jobs was another chief executive who had a fine eye for function and style and kept it beadily fixed on matters of interior design both at home and at work. The late chief executive of Apple apparently spent six weeks in intense discussions with his new bride about the exact function of a sofa.

A Mediterranean holiday onboard a rented yacht was abruptly cancelled after four days as he found its design too ugly and emotionally upsetting to sail any further.

Sadly, the difference between Goodwin and Jobs, setting aside the stark matter of life, is that the latter’s focus on style was inextricably linked to the success of the company’s core business.

The man who worried for days over where the handles should go on his own private Lear Jet was the same man who fretted over the tactility of your iPad and you were grateful and so paid him handsomely.

While both were equally capable of looking away from the road to ponder the exact hue of the rear passenger seats, only one then drove at high speed straight into a wall, turning the company into a twisted junkyard of debt while still managing to eject himself clear of the financial carnage and so float safely down cushioned by a vast silk-lined parachute and pension.

While his corporate failings have been well documented, I certainly don’t think Goodwin should be further mocked for keeping banks and offices tidy or for having an acute eye for interior design.

Perhaps a new career in soft furnishings?