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Fear and loneliness of a whistleblower - ex-Olympus chief Michael Woodford tells all

posted 27 Nov 2012, 04:13 by Mpelembe   [ updated 27 Nov 2012, 04:13 ]

Olympus whistleblower, ex-president Michael Woodford, describes the fear, nightmares and isolation after blowing the lid on one of Japan's worst corporate scandals, in his new book "Exposure: Inside the Olympus Scandal."

TOKYOJAPAN (REUTERS) -  He may have won a multi-million pound settlement from his former company,Olympus, but life as a whistleblower has been a frightening and lonely journey for ousted President Michael Woodford.

The British businessman was fired last year for raising the alarm over 1.7 billion dollars of shady Olympus payments.

He releases his book "Exposure: Inside the Olympus Scandal" this week. It's a frank and honest account of how isolated and terrified he became after trying to get to the bottom of the financing scandal at the heart of the company he ran.

"I went though a lot of pain and more so did my wife and my children and I don't want to just be futile or in vain," he said, describing why he wrote the book.

"The way Japan works or doesn't work, corporate Japan, I'd like the world to know that it really is as I describe, an Alice In Wonderland and the way the institutions work in Japan is something I think the world should know and I think the Japanese people should know," he said.

When he was warned that there might be "anti-social forces", which is a euphemism for Japanese organised crime, involved in the accounting scandal, he began to seriously worry for his and his family's safety, even though at that point he'd been fired and was living inLondon.

Links between Olympus and Japanese "yakuza" mafia have never been proven

"Just talking about it my hands are going cold again," he said from his London apartment, recalling the fear and the fact he was constantly looking over his shoulder.

He told British police his story and they immediately sent round diplomatic protection officers to his flat. He says the fact that they took his concerns seriously sent him and his wife into a hellish state of paranoia.

"They were looking to see how secure they could make this apartment and when they got to the front door they say said 'You can't have a letterbox like this, people can put combustible material through it'. And that was the start of my wife going down a spiral of panic and anxiety which became more acute as the days passed and every night, after 45 minutes of being in bed she would wake up screaming," he said.

Woodford, who rose through the ranks at Olympus over 30 years to become its first foreign president, was fired two weeks into the job in October 2011 after persistently warning about corruption at the top echelons of the camera and medical equipment maker.

Instead of launching an investigation into Woodford's concerns, board members turned their backs on him, which led to other senior colleagues giving him the cold shoulder.

"It was disturbing the way people suddenly, you know, moved away from you. I'm not talking about my Japanese colleagues, I'm talking about colleagues in the United States, inHamburg, in Southend where we have our headquarters, that really haunts me still today, because I thought I knew people," he said.

He said Japan has learnt nothing from the Olympus scandal.

"Lovely country, lovely people but something terribly wrong and dysfunctional about corporateJapan," he said.

"They are going backwards and they are not moving quickly enough in closing loss-making businesses, nothing's allowed to fail in Japan. They are not innovating, they treat half their workforce, women, in a way which is to me extremely chauvinistic, never mind women in senior positions in a boardroom, you find very few women at middle management level," he said, describing the outlook for Japan's corporate world as pretty bleak.

In his book, Woodford describes the toll whistleblowing took on not only his marriage, but his health as he criss-crossed the globe telling his story. Sleeping pills, worry, fear, isolation and anger drove him on.

He still feels angry and bitter towards his one-time friend and colleague, former OlympusChairman Tsuyoshi Kikukawa, who turned on Woodford.

Kikukama and other former executives plead guilty to fraud. He awaits sentencing and could face up to ten years in jail.

"I'd like to be very calm, and say 'No, I don't hold any ill will', but I can still see my wife downstairs screaming and that he was the cause. So if he was such an honourable, decent man then he would have done the honourable decent thing," Woodford said.

Woodford said he hopes his book will inspire others to have courage to blow the whistle on corporate wrong-doing, but he warns it's not an easy road to travel.

"I think what I can tell people is it's not a walk in the park, you do have to prepare yourself psychologically for this isolation, this horrible isolation but you can get through to the other end and life goes on, I love my children, I love my wife, I'm seeing my friends and you can come out the other end and you can live with a clean conscience that you did the right thing," he said.

Woodford is now close to signing a movie-deal about his whistleblowing experiences.

Meanwhile, pre-orders on his memoir, which is due to hit the UK high street on Thursday, have pushed it into second place on online retailer Amazon's business biographies and company history rankings.

Woodford, who agreed a 10 million pound ($16 million) out-of-court settlement from Olympusfor unfair dismissal, remains on the corporate governance lecture circuit and works as a consultant on corporate Japan.

But his passions remain his charities: road safety and human rights. His teenage son and daughter, he says, know he will give most of his money away. One thing he is unlikely to return to immediately, however, is the boardroom.