The former Olympus CEO exposed a $1.7bn fraud at the heart of one of Japan’s most important corporations, and became a symbol for whistle-blowers everywhere
Michael Woodford, the embattled former CEO of Olympus, is being honoured with the inaugural Contrarian Prize today. The new accolade “seeks to recognise individuals in British public life who demonstrate independence, courage and sacrifice”. Woodford has indeed demonstrated all of those traits: he acted independently from the Olympus board, he had the courage to stand up to them, and he sacrificed his career and enormous salary.
Woodford is considered a hero of our times for many: he only headed up Olympus for 14 days before going public with his discovery that hundreds of millions of dollars had been syphoned off to companies in the Cayman Islands and being summarily dismissed as CEO. Woodford had been the first non-Japanese executive to head up the powerful corporation, and there had been rumours that he was only appointed because he would be easy to control and “little more than a puppet”, as he himself described it to Nikkei Business.
Woodford’s revelations sent Olympus stocks crashing, and soon he needed a police escort to get around. “I was a businessman who went to meetings and wrote emails, visited production plants, strategy meetings and that sort of thing. Then suddenly I found myself in a John Grisham novel,” he told World Finance. But Woodford refused to back down.
The executive had already reported wrongdoing at Olympus before, most notably in 2005 and 2008 when he headed up the European business, and before leaving Olympus entirely, he mounted an unsuccessful campaign to wrestle control away from the board that had tried to silence him. Somewhere along the way, Woodford became a role-model for whistle-blowers. But, like any good hero, Woodford has maintained his modesty about his decision to blow the lid on corruption at Olympus: “I never felt there was really another option. I’m very confused by people coming up to me, including a lot of professional people, saying, ‘Well you were very brave, I wouldn’t have done that,’” he told Word Finance.
He has since settled with Olympus, written a book, and Colin Firth is rumoured to be starring in a film about Woodford. Today he is an advocate for protecting the rights of whistle-blowers, and has been vocal about what he sees as an inadequate system. Woodford has become a key proponent of transparency and accountability within big corporations.
Today’s Contrarian Prize announcement is important to keep the debate alive; there are still many issues surrounding whistle-blowing and how authorities and companies deal with them.