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When dogged devotion to a job goes a little too far

11 Feb 2013 THE AGE - HARRY WALLOP


Tesco's former boss expected corporate loyalty from his family. Some bosses take work very seriously, writes Harry Wallop.

IT IS possibly the most cringe-making minute in US corporate history. Steve Ballmer, former boss of Microsoft, storms the stage at a conference and proceeds to dance like a demented bullfrog. "Woooah," he screams and hollers, sweat running down his face, before coming to a panting halt, eyes bulging. "I have four words for you: I. Love. This. Company."

Like all senior staff at Microsoft, his loyalty to the company was so all-consuming that rivals' products were banished. Would you find a Microsoft staffer listening to an iPod? No, it would be that ultimate hip music player the Zune (don't worry if you can't remember them; they flopped). Would they Google a number for a restaurant? Of course not. They'd Bing it.

Extreme corporate loyalty has long been frowned on beyond the US. After all, most British businessmen struggle to express love for their children, let alone the company they work for.

But that reticence appears to be over. The former chief executive of Tesco, Sir Terry Leahy, recently admitted on radio that his zeal for Britain's biggest supermarket stretched to the contents of the family's fridge. Asked if his wife Alison had ever shopped at rival Waitrose, he said: "Occasionally, but I would complain so much that she wouldn't bother."

He added: "I bribed my children to sort of inform on Alison if ever she popped into Waitrose when she picked up the kids from school."

This corporate lifestyle-by-censorship has been given a nickname by US software engineers: "eating your own dog food". They have even conjured this inelegant phrase into a verb: "to dogfood". Ugly it may be, but it neatly encapsulates the increasing need of chief executives not just to talk the talk, but walk the walk.

Rita Clifton, a leading brand consultant, says: "The chief executive officer has to be the chief branding officer. The blurring between personal and professional life has now gone so far that you have to live and represent the brand at all times."

Poor old Jools Oliver was caught with a Waitrose shopping bag while her husband, Jamie, was being paid millions to promote Sainsbury's.

Melinda Gates, husband of Microsoft founder Bill, made a fair point when she said she refused to buy her children iPhones: "The wealth from our family came from Microsoft so why would we invest in a competitor?"

It was a little unfortunate her daughter was then snapped jogging while listening to an iPod.

Of course, "dogfooding" is much easier for the boss if they run a fairly aspirational brand. Sir Stuart Rose, former chief executive of Marks & Spencer, ensured that the suits and ties he wore when he presented the company's financial figures were most definitely St Michael garments, knowing he would be quizzed by the press. In fact, he looked so impeccable, rumours circulated that he must have sent his suits off to be tweaked by a man on Savile Row.

But the all-consuming approach can be short-sighted, say some experts. "From a business point of view, it is a stupid thing to do," says brand consultant Jonathan Gabay. "You need to know what your competition is up to."

We want our bosses to be loyal, but down to earth. And normal people shop at more than one retailer. To insist on absolute loyalty in your own house is as strange as, well, eating your own dog food.