Apr 26, 2015

When running a company is a matter of life and death

Recently I suffered a painful accident and spent several days in hospital.

Compared with those who are seriously ill, my experience was a mere inconvenience, but it still served as a wake-up call. I have begun to reassess my obligations to work, charities and so forth, and to think harder about the real priorities in life. I’m still recovering from my injuries, and do not have my usual levels of energy. Consequently I am finding it difficult to fulfil all the various commitments I have made; it seems something will have to give.

In such circumstances, one can take comfort from the resilience of those who have endured dramatic trauma. Sir Frank Williams, the Formula One racing team owner, broke his neck in a car accident in 1986. He was left paralysed from the neck down at the age of 43. In the decades since, he has continued to run and grow the business, and remains as team principal after stepping down from the board in 2012. His F1 and engineering business has revenues of more than £120m, and made a £12m profit in 2013.

My friend Martha Lane Fox was terribly badly hurt after selling Lastminute.com, but has reinvented her life as a champion of digital skills, chancellor of the Open University and the youngest female member of the House of Lords. I am a huge admirer of her optimistic temperament in tough circumstances.

But not everyone has their grit. Some high flyers find the price of success too high. In 2013, the chief executive of Swisscom committed suicide after suffering from stress. He became pathologically addicted to his smartphone following the break-up of his marriage. Two months before he died, he said in an interview: “The most dangerous thing that can happen is that you drop into a mode of permanent activity . . . It makes you feel as if you are being strangled. I always have the feeling that there should be less responsibilities.” He had served as chief executive for seven years and turned the business into Switzerland’s largest telecoms company, but clearly found the anxiety intolerable.

Another tragic case was Alex Calderwood, founder of the hip hotel chain Ace. He died in his brand new London branch in 2013 as a result of alcohol and drugs toxicity — in particular, cocaine. He was only 47 and his business appeared to be booming. I guess he relieved the pressure of running his hospitality empire through substance abuse, with terrible consequences.

A very prosperous acquaintance in the entertainment industry died a little while ago mainly because of drink and drugs. He struggled with many demons, but his unhealthy way of tackling such psychological dilemmas was to anaesthetise his anxieties using intoxicants.

Middle-aged men are most likely to commit suicide — three times more so than women of that age. The BBC recently showed an excellent documentary on the subject, A Suicide In The Family. Men are much less likely than women to discuss their problems with others — especially if they are leaders and high achievers. Such men are expected to be strong; most fear the shame of admitting to mental issues. But taboos are breaking down, and more men who have felt suicidal are talking openly.

For entrepreneurs, the trigger for such acts can be bankruptcy or litigation. Adolf Merckle, one of Germany’s wealthiest men, threw himself under a train when his industrial conglomerate looked like crumbling, following a disastrous bet against Volkswagen shares. His business empire employed 100,000 people with revenues of €30bn. No matter how successful he was, the pain of failure seemed too much.

And Roy Raymond, the genius founder of Victoria’s Secret, jumped to his death from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. He sold the lingerie retailer and then proceeded to lose all his money on My Child’s Destiny, a high-end childrenswear retailer. He later divorced, and clearly succumbed to despair, perhaps exacerbated by the triumph of his original concept — from which he enjoyed no financial benefit.

Billionaire Howard Hughes was an extreme example of wealth combined with a tendency to self-sabotage. He was badly injured in a plane crash in 1946, and his behaviour deteriorated.

Hughes became steadily more reclusive and eccentric and ended his days addicted to drugs, a mental and physical wreck. He amassed a huge fortune from oil equipment, defence, aviation and property — especially in Las Vegas. Despite his bizarre whims, most of his big financial bets were highly profitable.

In the 1970s he may have been the richest man in the world, but by the time he died in 1976, he was possibly also among the loneliest and least happy. Ambition is not necessarily a comfortable bedfellow with wellbeing. It can be an antisocial, selfish desire, and if not held in check, can deliver dire consequences.

As the Victorian novelist and politician Edward Bulwer-Lytton said: “Its wear and tear on the heart are never recompensed.”