Expect to get dirty when a name is mud
By Lucy Kellaway
Published: December 21 2008 19:15 | Last updated: December 21 2008 19:15
In England at around the time of Edward the Confessor people started to call themselves after the sort of work they did. If you made bread you were Mr Baker; if you made things from wood you took the name Mr Carpenter; if you made barrels you were called Mr Cooper.
I was reminded of this fine tradition last week by the story of Bernie Madoff (pronounced Made-off). If one’s occupation involves making off with $50bn of investors’ money, then it is quite proper that one’s name should reflect that.
Mr Madoff is not alone among disgraced businessmen in having a name that gives the game away. Take the case of Anurag Dikshit, co-founder of PartyGaming, who last week agreed to plead guilty to an internet betting charge. Think too of the Illinois governor, Rod Blagojevich, accused of trying to sell Barack Obama’s Senate seat. His name suggests that blagging is something that came naturally to him.
Could there be a trend here? Last week I spent a day researching financiers and business people that had got into trouble and decided there definitely could. According to my findings, what unites them is not a troubled childhood, alcohol abuse or a narcissistic personality disorder but having a name that hints at trouble.
Writers of fiction understand this well. Charles Dickens appreciated the importance of people living up to their names, and so called his goodies Little Nell or Florence or Amy, while he gave his baddies names such as Ebenezer Scrooge and Uriah Heep. Even less subtly in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz L. Frank Baum calls his villains The Wicked Witch of the West and The Wicked Witch of the East.
Real life turns out to be closer to Wizard of Oz than A Christmas Carol in the prosaic way it links dark deeds and dark names. Consider Conrad Black, who is now serving out a prison sentence in Florida. It is no coincidence that it wasn’t Conrad White or Conrad Scarlett who defrauded Hollinger shareholders out of millions of dollars.
At Enron the names should also have been a clue to hapless investors and staff that something was amiss. There was Kenneth Lay, whose moniker should have warned any innocents that climbing into bed with him was going to be a mistake. And then there was Andrew Fastow, who pulled a fast-o with his off-balance sheet deals and is now behind bars. And Jeffrey Skilling – whose name was surely a double bluff. Skill was something he had plenty of, he just happened not to put it to terribly good use.
In the more distant past there was Michael Milken who, as Junk Bond King, milked ’em for all they were worth. And Asil Nadir, now a fugitive from justice in Cyprus, whose fraudulent antics at Polly Peck represented a nadir for shareholders, the Serious Fraud Office, a government minister who resigned and the entire British political establishment.
Some business crooks signalled their badness more through their first names than their surnames: Dennis Kozlowski, greedy bully at Tyco who blew $15,000 of shareholders’ money on an umbrella stand and $8,000 on a shower curtain, shared a first name with the British cartoon character Dennis the Menace who used to go around bashing up softies until his dad attacked him with a slipper.
Aha, you may be thinking, this is all very well, but what about Robert Maxwell? He was utterly crooked, but his name was utterly straight. At first sight, my theory does appear to collapse with the crooked Czech. However, Robert Maxwell was not born Robert Maxwell; his real name was Jan Ludvig Hoch – which is an entirely appropriate name for one who became so deeply in hock not only to his bankers but to thousands of luckless Maxwell pensioners.
Though this link between name and misdemeanour is irrefutable, it does not tell us which way the causality runs. Is it that babies with wicked genes are somehow a magnet for wicked names?
Or is that sweet children, born innocent, are somehow turned bad by the names they are given? If you have to tell people over and again that your name is Made-Off, or Dikshit, maybe you start getting ideas and behaving accordingly.
Either way, my research has important implications for all investors and fine upstanding citizens. If, say, a nice looking Dutch financier should ever come along promising you that his fund will reliably pay out 15 per cent, look first at his name. If, let us say, it is Hans In Der Til, then just say no.
This year I have only received one corporate Christmas card, and as I had never heard of the company it was from nor the 12 different people who signed it, it didn’t lift my spirits much. I’ve also received fewer e-cards than last year, which is no great loss either – as they cost no effort to send, they give no joy to receive. However, one e-card has given me a great deal of pleasure and I would like you to enjoy it too. It is from the Frankfurt school of Finance and Management and is a video of the faculty and support staff swaying as they sing tunelessly “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” in broken English. I could not recommend it more highly: www.frankfurt-school.de/content/de/xmas.
In the meantime, I would like to wish you a merry Christmas too, only my wishes come unsung, non-electronic and on pink paper.
This column returns on January 5