Business Nightmares With Evan Davis

Monday 9 May 2011, 01:01

Evan Davis Evan Davis

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I have a secret concern about the Business Nightmares programme. I worry that you'll enjoy it too much.

I worry that you'll revel in the stupidity of the mistakes, laugh at the businesses involved and idly sit back, comfortable in the knowledge that you would never be as daft.

Of course, I can see why you might react that way and I'm not saying that I don't want you to enjoy the programme at all. And I certainly don't want to suggest that it doesn't have its laugh-out-loud moments.

Evan Davis

It's just that I don't want Business Nightmares to make you all feel smug about the failings of business.

If there is a reason why most of us would not make mistakes on the scale of the characters in the programme, it is simply that most of us don't make complex decisions like the people in the programme.

We don't create companies, launch new products or devise marketing campaigns.

When most of us make mistakes they tend to be rather routine. Whether we be journalists or dentists, filing clerks or mechanics, we err all the time and rectify (or ignore) our mistakes as we discover them.

But for those in business, it is different.

They live in a world governed by gods that are particularly creative.

Gods that hate to make life regular, that enjoy playing with the unpredictable and that like to challenge the brave.

So when we see people in business fail, we must always ask whether they deserve respect rather than derision.

For example, in the three-part series of Business Nightmares, some of the nightmares are simply genuinely difficult situations that no amount of clever handling could resolve.

What exactly would you have done if you were running Polaroid when digital cameras came along?

We feature gambles that were taken perfectly reasonably, but which didn't happen to pay off in the end. The Rabbit phone seemed like an awfully good idea when mobile phones were beyond the reach of ordinary people, but is easily ridiculed now.

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And we tell the stories of what I call "good" mistakes - those which result from trying to be ambitious and original. was ambitiously ahead of its time but at least it wasn't stuck in the past.

Of course, there are a few straightforward bad mistakes too: the genuine howlers that prompt one to ask, "What were they thinking?"

Royal Bank of Scotland's takeover of ABN Amro as a banking crisis broke in 2007 comes to mind. But there are fewer of those than you would think.

So here's my tip in watching the programme. Laugh at the funny bits. Revel in the mistakes. But laugh with the protagonists not at them.

And be inspired by them to take a few risks of your own, to be ambitious and to move outside your comfort zone to the arenas of life where error is inevitable.

Business Nightmares with Evan Davis is on BBC Two at 8pm on Monday, 9 May.

Evan Davis is the presenter of Business Nightmares. He also a presenter on Radio 4's Today Programme, and BBC Two's Dragons' Den.

For further programme times, please visit the upcoming episodes page.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    I must say the Hoover free flights disaster proved to be of great benefit to us. We needed a wet and dry vacuum cleaner anyway and we persisted with the labyrinthine process Hoover had put in place to obtain flights but eventually got away and had a fab holiday in Florida. Whilst there we bought a timeshare apartment in Sarasota which we kept for nine years, making many long-standing American friends plus making a $2,000 profit when we sold it and best of all - we're still using the wet and dry vacuum cleaner. Result for us, shame about Hoover UK.

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    Comment number 2.

    Didn't one of our greatest companies, (that former FTSE bell-weather) ICI plc, get it terribly wrong?
    They lost their competitive edge mainly because of the low-wage competition from the far east and from a handful of more efficient western companies.
    They put a far too lengthy accounting depreciation period on their plants and equipment, eventually and predictably resulting in enormous insupportable maintenance costs, as an 'internal' mistake. Were too slow in making their considerably overmanned staff redundant when it became apparent in the early 1960s, and employed an over abundant number of highly paid chartered accountants and other technical staffs. They are now a mere 'division' of the company of which was once a division of their own, Nobel. It was a complete disaster for their shareholders, staff, and the country's industrial reputation in my eyes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Thank you for restoring my status in the family with the Mini Story. I worked for Ford in 60s and we couldn't understand why we were paying taxes on our profits to subsidise the Mini competition with our Anglia. My kids all thought this was an old buffer's urban myth.

    Have you got the one about Monsanto and Glyphosate (Roundup). Thecut the price (by about 25% I think) to squeeze out the competition, but they weren't the lowest cost producer! I worked for ICI Plant Protection then and we and may others carried on competeing with our own versions. All Monsanto did was reduce the value of the market and their profits accordingly

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    This looks like a very interesting series... I am currently reading a lot of case studies and literature on the same topics. "If You Build It, Will They Come?" for example is one book that talks about taking products from concept/idea to market.
    I live in the US now but is there any liklihood that this will make its way onto BBC America?

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Hi Evan
    May I add this to your stories - but this time success rising from the ashes of disaster.
    In the sixties I worked at Thomas Hedley's (later Proctor & Gamble) factory. At this time they were making a soap powder called 'Cheer'. Coloured a pale sort of orange, the public hated it. When I as there they were giving away an assortment of free gifts to try to persaude people to buy it, all without success.
    Eventually, it was withdrawn. However, removing the orange dye, flaking a few green specks of a P&G best seller into it - and bingo! Fairy Snow was born and became a runaway success.
    There was a failure whilst I was there. Do you remember Camay?

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    I just watched the first show in the series. I liked the insight it provided. Coming from Silicon Valley where you are dealing with the difficulty of inventing the future on a daily basis it was interesting to see the examples presented. Some I remember watching unfold whiel others were new to me. It will great to see the balance of the series.

    More than the show I like Evan's warning about not just laughing and feeling smug. Some things are a lot less obvious in the heat of battle than they are after the dust has settled.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Are you going to cover the mid-1970's fiasco, when a tobacco company tried to substitute tobacco with wood chips impregnated with nicotine in their cigarettes. They ended up having to incinerate their stocks.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    How about mentioning the business disaster of the E-mail Plus? Or is the BBC perputrating the myth of Alan Sugar being a good businessman?
    How about the business failure of Rachel Elnaugh from Dragon's Den?

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    The "disaster" that I remember .... painfully .... was when Sony brought out the Video 8 system video recorder. It was supposed to take over from the Betamax system & VHS. It was apparently a much superior system, with the option to record digital quality music on each of the 8 tracks, but failed to take off in the market place. Unfortunately, I had bought one .... for about £1000!! Ouch!

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    I watched the recent programme with interest and it was very enlightening. One thought that struck me was Coca Cola and Persil who had an obsession with the competition and how badly it affected their perspective. Translate that to the current international situation where America and Europe seem rather obsessed with what China are doing more than anything else. Could be similar outcomes for them in the not too distant future.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    How amazing -- that was me on the phone in the Hutchinson office during the clip about the Rabbit debacle! Back in 1992/3 if memory serves me. Just the two of us answering the customer calls back then although it did get busier ... honest!

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Since I saw the Apple logo in the preamble to this series, I trust Davis will be giving Jobs & Co both barrels.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Lovely to read your comments. Particularly delighted to see Steph notice herself in the Rabbit "call centre". Funnily enough, a lot of the nightmares seem to arouse memories like that -- I noticed that on Twitter and see it here too.

    Moorstuff, sorry you worked on the Ford Anglia. My family had a Ford Classic which I seem to remember was a bit more upmarket! I don't know anyone who has ever heard of it anymore! Never sold.

    I'm hopeful we will be asked to make another series so ideas as to other business disasters welcome. Thank you to those of you with suggestions.

    OscarMac, you will see Apple in the next episode. But in no case do I like to think of myself giving anyone "with both barrels". Scrupulously fair at all times!

    Mariegriffiths, you will be pleased to know I asked Lord Sugar whether his emailer was a business nightmare for an interview in the Radio Times last week. He admitted it had been overtaken by broadband. Certainly, a good candidate.

    AndyMac. I'm not sure of the BBC America situation. Sorry.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    I enjoyed the first episode. This is the kind of quality programming a lot of us would rather see on the box!


  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    quality of the programme and relevance of its lessons in todays business world, out ways most of the wasted hours people spend in business school classes, it was so educative , informative and beneficial. thanks evans

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Terrific programme, much spoilt by that awful music. Why, these days, does one have to struggle to hear what is being said through the loud, interfering din?
    Don't the producers know they lose much of their audience, through sheer frustration, before the programme really gets started?

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Good idea for a programme except for including the Ratner story. Your researchers should have told you that every book, case study and Ratner himself have beaten the hell out of the story. He spent 5 years going to every dinner in the UK to be an after dinner speaker to tell people how stupid he had been. Surely you could have found enough other morons to highlight.

    The only other joke was that when he tried to launch his online business using Indian investors, the owners of the name Ratner stopped him. He forgot to do the homework. That's why it's called Geraldonline.

    Why not focus on Branson thinking he could beat Coke and Pepsi with a virgin cola ? Surely the ultimate folly ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    hi Evan. Great programme. Just wondering where do you get your shirts from?

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    I hope you're not going miss the Marconi collapse. Lord Weinstock in 30?yrs slowly carefully built an empire with £4Bn in the bank and it took two whiz kids to bankrupt it in less than 18 months!

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    I liked this programme but I'm confused. During the Gerald Ratner story it clearly said that the business was LOOSING £350,000 a year. Then shortly after one of the screen graphics said that in the first year Ratner took over he doubled PROFITS. The company wasn't making any profit, it was loosing money ......... am I being thick?


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