It’s one thing to start a revolt and quite another to lead a revolution. Michael Woodford, the former Olympus CEO, will be finding this out soon enough. The revolt spilled out publicly with his firing Oct. 14, but Mr. Woodford had started it privately with a request for the resignations of Tsuyoshi Kikukawa, then Olympus Chairman, and others directly involved in some dubious transactions. Upon his firing, Mr. Woodford promptly packed up his documentation and went to London, and from there, investigative bodies and numerous news outlets, seemingly speaking to anyone with a notebook and pen. Last Friday, he returned to Tokyo for the Olympus board meeting, of which he was still a member. Triumphant, at a news conference, he praised the news media for providing the pressure that forced Olympus to admit that the transactions were dubious and the resignation of executives seen as being directly involved, particularly Mr. Kikukawa.
Now, Suichi Takayama is president, and Mr. Woodford is still unhappy because Mr. Takayama was as a member of the board that showed little hesitation dismissing him. Mr. Woodford feels that Olympus needs an entirely new board and he has resigned his seat so that he may lead an outside takeover of the company. This is a bold objective and possibly one that is too far to achieve. Many stakeholders may agree with his assessment of the transactions, which are still being investigated, but the whistle-blowers are seen as a troublemakers as often as they are heroes — they may be right, but their message is often unwelcome, particularly when, as in this case, the company sheds huge amounts of market value.
In the end, Mr. Woodford may have to settle for reinvigorating interest in corporate governance in Japan and retire to a life of good works at non-profits. In discussing his legal bills recently, he seemed to hint at a lawsuit. A book deal could also offset some of his legal fees, but there’s no guarantee that there will be lasting interest in this adventure, particularly if no yakuza are involved and it turns out that it was simply corporate crime — more “Wall Street” than “Goodfellas.”