https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/rico-backs-departure-is-a-first-class-opportunity-for-royal-mailRico Back’s departure is a first-class opportunity for Royal MailFrom Spectator magazine issue: 23 May 2020Martin Vander Weyer
The Royal Mail worker who rang my bell to deliver an Amazon package on Friday was wearing a glittery ball gown because she and her colleagues were fundraising for local hospitals: ‘Two thousand quid so far,’ she said cheerily as she accepted my donation and thanks. But if I had asked her what she thought of the performance of her ultimate boss Rico Back — chief executive of Royal Mail until his sudden departure after less than two years in the job — I suspect she might not even have recognised his name, so remote has this German-born, Swiss-resident big shot been from the front line of his organisation’s role in keeping us all in touch with each other during the lockdown. Back himself reportedly chose to sit it out from his ‘luxury penthouse’ in Zurich: the most colleagues had seen of him lately (a well-placed source tells me) was a talking head on Zoom ‘as if he was casting a Eurovision vote’.
But he was never going to have an easy run, having followed Dame Moya Greene, the modest Canadian who was praised for her dogged attempt to restructure postal services while keeping the strike-hungry Communications Workers Union at bay. He was damned from the start for the £5.8 million ‘golden hello’ that eased his move up from running Royal Mail’s GLS parcels business, the European arm of which he built and sold to the group — though he was never persuaded to move his home to London. He announced a £1.8 billion modernisation plan to turn Royal Mail into a world-leading parcels business but largely failed to deliver it, while the company’s shares fell to half its 2013 privatisation price.
Combine all that with a current slump in letter-post revenues and a rising threat level from the CWU, and you might think Back’s vacant office is not one any sane and ambitious executive would aspire to fill. On the contrary, I think it could be a great opportunity for a modern corporate thinker. To be fair to 66-year-old Back, he represented the breed of old-style results-driven chief that institutional shareholders thought they needed to make Royal Mail more efficient than competitors that were eating the best bits of its previous monopoly. But how often do you greet the satnav-reliant drivers of DPD or DHL as friends, the way you welcome the little red van of the local postie, whatever she’s wearing?
No other operator is woven into the social fabric and held in public affection as Royal Mail is — and that brand loyalty, re-inforced by current circumstances, ought to be an enormous advantage as e--commerce volumes continue to grow. Having looked like a lost cause when the profit motive was rampant, Royal Mail could re-emerge as a model company for the era of capitalism with social purpose.
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