Bad Karma

By David

The best sporting news of the week – no wait – the best sporting news of 2009 was announced last week on the New Zealand website, Stuff. Here is what it said.

Shares in iconic Kiwi whiteware manufacturer Fisher & Paykel have been smashed to record low levels – losing as much as 40 percent in value.

You must be as delighted as I am to hear that news. Isn’t it fantastic? The whole house of cards is about to come crashing down on Chief Executive, John Bongard, and the gang of recreants that run his company. The details of it all make even better reading. Bongard has had to accept a 7.5% cut in his $1.14 million dollar pay. For some reason, his cohorts are losing only 5%. The good news just goes on and on. Debt has increased by $122 million since March 2008 to $512 million and is expected to reach $570 million by the end of March 2009. Shares closed at a record of only $1 last Friday. In the 10 months to January, sales were down 13.1 percent in New Zealand, 8.5 per cent in Australia, 12.9 percent in the US and 10 percent in Europe.

In the best traditions of sport Bongard described the conditions faced by his team as “unprecedented and difficult”. And it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving subject. If there is such a thing as bad karma, Fisher & Paykel have got it in heaps and they deserve it all and probably more.

For those of you who have been climbing Mount Everest without oxygen or sailing alone around the world and have not heard of the circumstances that have brought such joy to the rest of the sporting world, let me explain. It all began in 2003 when New Zealander’s Russell Coutts and Brad Butterworth elected to sail for the America’s Cup challenger Alinghi against the cup holder, Team New Zealand. Led by Fisher & Paykel, Team New Zealand’s supporters branded their crusade the “Loyal” campaign. Silver fern flags featuring the word “Loyal” proudly flew from polished steel flag poles outside Fisher & Paykel’s corporate headquarters. New Zealand musician Dave Dobbin rolled out his old hit, “Loyal”. The country was obsessed. The flags were mass produced. The song, despite being released in 1988, became a huge hit once more.

But there was a dark side to all this hysteria. Letters threatening physical harm were sent to Coutts and Butterworth. New Zealanders, led by Fisher & Paykel, began to act in a manner that was alarming and dark. My country became a place I barely recognized. This had nothing to do with sport. This was not the way Lydiard or Hillary or Meads or Walker or even Coutts and Butterworth played the game. This was about power and money and fear: it was shameful.

But not nearly as shameful as Fisher & Paykel’s next trick; there they were leading a tsunami of national sporting hysteria in New Zealand and at the same time it was announced in Sydney that they had negotiated a million dollar deal to sponsor swimming in Australia. There was nothing wrong with the Australian deal. It was probably very good business and certainly got their brand well known in that country. What was not right was the beating they were giving two New Zealand yachtsmen for selling their services to the Swiss America’s Cup campaign at the same time as they were selling the Fisher & Paykel brand to foreigners and supporting Australian swimmers instead of New Zealnders. That was hypocritical beyond belief. For some reason though, they avoided the harsh publicity they deserved. I’ve never bought a Fisher & Paykel appliance since then and I never will, but I guess they’re not too worried about that.

Trick two, however, was even more scandalous. The company began a programme of shifting its manufacturing out of New Zealand to low cost labor markets in Mexico and Thailand. Again, there was nothing inherently wrong with that decision that does not happen in business and manufacteuring across the world, and neither this blog nor this post is primarily concerned with debating capitalism. However, when they so prominently took the America’s Cup moral high ground, when they played such an active role in forcing two proud and talented New Zealand athletes to hire ex-SAS body guards, when they preached the importance of national loyalty in business and sport – to abandon their country after all that pious posturing was despicable.

What goes around comes around. Coutts and Butterworth have prospered and Fisher & Paykel is on the bones of its bum. In a way, Fisher & Paykel may have been right all along. Honour and integrity are important in sport and business. Only in this case, it was New Zealand’s two sailors who displayed those qualities. Karma – it’s perfect.