Trying to deceive US regulators, inflating profits, even flying their pets around on corporate jets. In 2015, company executives, as before, found themselves mired in financial scandal. But, for once, not one of these high-profile cases involved bankers.
All of them, however — at Volkswagen, Toshiba and Industrivärden, respectively — have involved big losses for shareholders, or billions of dollars of potential fines and serial lawsuits.
New chief executives have pledged to sweep away the old cultures, but they will also need to buff up heavily tarnished reputations.
Matthias Müller, Volkswagen
Since the US Environmental Protection Agency caught Volkswagen cheating in emissions tests in September, the German carmaker has made more than a dozen changes to the ranks of its senior management.
From installing a new research and development chief to creating a board position for integrity and legal affairs, the company has moved swiftly to shake up the “VW system” and show commitment to overcoming the biggest scandal in its history.
But by far the most important change was the first one: the elevation of Matthias Müller, former Porsche boss, to the role of VW group chief executive — just seven days after the scandal broke.
Mr Müller, 62, is hardly a brand-new broom — a fact that led one big investor to call for his replacement after less than two months. He has been with the VW group for almost 40 years and was even linked with the job in April when the then chairman and CEO appeared to fall out.
The silver-haired executive will need all the shareholder support he can muster, however. VW faces billions of dollars in fines and class action lawsuits in the US, as well as repair costs and early signs of a consumer backlash in several markets.
José Asumendi, analyst at JPMorgan, says Mr Müller has “the most challenging job any VW CEO could have faced since the creation of the company”.
First, Mr Müller — who appeared confident, relaxed and even combative in a recent media appearance — must quickly reach agreement with US authorities on how it will fix cars affected by the emissions test rigging, and restore customer trust in what was already a difficult market for VW. “The test of fire will be in North America,” says Mr Asumendi.
Longer term, shareholders will want Mr Müller to address some of the company’s structural problems while he seeks to speed up decision-making and devolve power to the company’s various brands.
Operating margins at the core VW car marque need to double from less than 3 per cent — under the stewardship of another new broom Herbert Diess. And the VW group also needs convincing strategies in hybrid and electric cars and low-cost vehicles. Andy Sharman
Masashi Muromachi, Toshiba
Had Masashi Muromachi been given the choice, he would not have taken over the CEO job at Toshiba in July. It was a time when the semiconductor-to-nuclear conglomerate was facing its biggest crisis in a 140-year history, following revelations that it had inflated $1.3bn in net profits over seven years.
But analysts say it is now time for the 65-year-old Mr Muromachi, who had been chairman before the accounting scandal, to shed his image as a provisional boss looking to step down as early as possible. In the year ahead, he will be tasked with abandoning most of the businesses most closely associated with the Japanese group.
Mr Muromachi appears committed for now: “My biggest responsibility is to achieve a V-shaped recovery in the next financial year,” he says.
High on his to-do list is an exit from the struggling television and laptop businesses, which were largely blamed for the accounting malpractices. So far, Toshiba has pledged to cut about 10,000 jobs but has yet to pull out of the consumer electronics businesses altogether.
“This should be the priority because this was the epicentre of the improper accounting,” says JPMorgan analyst Hisashi Moriyama.
“If Toshiba can fully exit from these businesses, it will signal the management’s break from the past. It’s not just about improving its earnings, but it’s necessary to restore its reputation so global investors can consider investing again,” Mr Moriyama adds.
Mr Muromachi, under pressure from both investors and Japanese regulators, has little option left but to deliver on a radical overhaul. However, the biggest risk is that its speedy execution may be hampered by further deterioration in business conditions — making it difficult for lossmaking Toshiba to shoulder more than $2bn in restructuring costs.
“They could have taken action a long time ago. How can investors believe them now?” asks Mitsushige Akino, chief fund manager at Tokyo-based Ichiyoshi Investment Management.
Ultimately, the success of Mr Muromachi’s leadership will be judged by his ability to draw the blueprint for growth after Toshiba is stripped of most of its iconic businesses. What’s left of the firm would be its energy business and flash memory chips — which do not necessarily have a rosy outlook. Kana Inagaki
Helena Stjernholm, Industrivärden
Sweden has an image of being egalitarian and ethical. And that is why a corporate jet scandal at the start of this year led to one of the biggest corporate shake-ups in Europe — leaving former private equity partner Helena Stjernholm to clean up the mess.
Ms Stjernholm is now chief executive of Industrivärden, the Swedish holding company at the heart of the scandal. It holds controlling stakes in businesses as diverse as lender Handelsbanken, telecoms group Ericsson, truckmaker Volvo, and paper company SCA.
It was at the last of these businesses that the scandal started, when local papers ran lurid reports — by Swedish standards — of wives, children and even pets taking the SCA corporate jet to visit hunting lodges and sporting events.
A decimation of Industrivärden-controlled boardrooms followed, starting at the investment company itself. Both its longstanding chairman and chief executive were forced out. In their place, two new strongmen of the Industrivärden system were appointed: Fredrik Lundberg, who became chairman of Industrivärden, and Par Boman, who went from chief executive of Handelsbanken to its chairman as well as taking on a similar role at SCA.
A former head of the Stockholm office of private equity firm IK Investment Partners, Ms Stjernholm is used to working in the non-listed world out of the spotlight.
But now she will have to deal with the huge internal politics of the Industrivärden sphere of companies. Certain cross-holdings such as Handelsbanken’s stake in SCA and SCA’s in Industrivärden have been unwound. But the two biggest — the mutual ones between Industrivärden and Handelsbanken — remain.
Investors argue the cross-holdings muddy the lines of responsibility between Industrivärden and Handelsbanken. Ms Stjernholm will have her work cut out dealing with that relationship as well as the power dynamic between Messrs Lundberg and Boman.
Bankers also expect her to look at other parts of Industrivärden’s portfolio, with its stake in Ericsson seen as particularly susceptible to being sold. Richard Milne