Melbourne CAs welcome Olympus whistleblower Michael Woodford
ICAS members in Melbourne were treated to a very special event when Olympus whistleblower Michael Woodford MBE came to town.
When ICAS members in Melbourne, Australia, were told they had the chance to hear Michael Woodford MBE speak, they literally jumped at the chance. All seats were booked within two hours. Several hundred others put their names onto a waiting list.
It was a unique opportunity to hear a speaker who usually commands a five-figure fee per appearance - 100% of which always goes to Michael’s charity, the Safer Roads Foundation.
“Ken [Chair of the ICAS Melbourne community, Ken Weldin] wrote to me and I have a lot of goodwill with ICAS,” Woodford said after his presentation, as he was signing copies of his book, Exposure (Penguin, 2015). “I also have a lot time for Fiona Mackay, who I have worked with several times.”
'Stranger than fiction'
Woodford told the audience a highly personal story of his rise to the top of one of Japan’s biggest corporations, to the position of President of Olympus, and what he found once he got there.
It was an account of international intrigue, danger, glamour and crime - a true tale far stranger than fiction.
He discussed the pain involved with discovering the fact that the person that had mentored him throughout his career, the Chairman of the Board, had a very dirty secret. Woodford also highlighted the enormous cultural problems existing in the Japanese business world, and in other markets around the globe.
One story was around the fact that one of his colleagues suggested that he take on a mistress while his wife was at home in the UK. Disloyalty to family was not frowned upon, but disloyalty to the company was absolutely unacceptable no matter what crimes the company had committed.
Tension in the narrative rose to its highest when Woodford described his confrontations with Board members and colleagues. He had discovered, originally through a story that had been leaked to a business magazine, that Olympus had spent around US$1.7 billion on sham companies and consultants.
Exposing the truth
When he first began to ask questions he was frozen out by the Board. The behaviour of his colleagues bordered on being childish. When he requested a lunch meeting one day, for instance, he walked in to the board room to see two colleagues dining on a spread of high-grade sushi. In the place he was told to sit there was instead a tuna sandwich wrapped in cling film.
But none of the negative treatment scared Woodford off. He recognised the importance of righting the wrongs and exposing the truth, even when he realised organised crime gangs were likely involved, and that the safety of he and his family could be at risk.
This is perhaps where the greatest value of Woodford’s presentation is to be found, in his passion for transparency within business. He describes very clearly how entire markets live or die on the veracity of their processes and systems, and has little respect for audit departments when they fail to do their job in protecting those markets. In doing what he did, despite the resulting 80% drop in Olympus’s share price, Woodford played a role in future-proofing Japan’s economy.
However, he is now concerned about whether the nation’s business elite have become even more secretive.
Does he still worry for his safety, after his revelations caused so much financial grief for Olympus and others involved in the fraud?
“When I visit Japan now, I am probably the safest person in the country,” he says. “The crime gangs don’t want to draw attention to themselves, so they wouldn’t do anything. And the people of Japan were absolutely supportive. They appreciated the value in what I was doing.”
The event was held in the offices of Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand, in what will likely be the first of several joint events aimed at bringing the communities closer together.