Practical analysis for investment professionals
29 May 2013

Lessons from a Whistleblower: Putting Integrity into Practice

As Michael Woodford boarded a plane from London to Tokyo in March 2011, just days after the devastating earthquake in Japan, he found himself sitting alone in the first-class cabin that was typically full of busy executives. Why was he going to Japan, despite travel warnings, panic, and fears of environmental contamination? As CEO designate of Tokyo-based Olympus Corporation, he felt it was the right thing to do. Woodford went on to tell the audience at the 66th CFA Institute Annual Conference in Singapore the story about his brief time as the CEO of Olympus and his discovery of a $1.7 billion accounting fraud. Just as on that empty plane, Woodford had to stand alone in a culture in which speaking out was not rewarded.

He had attained the role of CEO as the culmination of a 30-year career at Olympus, where he had built business lines and developed relationships with people, such as company chairman Tsuyoshi Kikukawa, who, Woodford said, “was like my favorite uncle.” Initially, everything seemed idyllic. The stock price went up when he was announced as the CEO, and it continued to climb. “I realized how easy it was because in Japan, everyone does what you tell them to do, which is a problem, but it can be a power to get a lot done quickly.”

It didn’t last long, though. As Woodford began to ask questions and inquire about a FACTA magazine exposé, he was stonewalled by Kikukawa and the board and then fired. Meanwhile, he learned that the fraud was linked to organized crime in Japan, and he realized that not only his career was at stake but also that his personal safety was in peril. When he made his first visit back to Tokyo after these events, he was accompanied by no fewer than 30 bodyguards — more than Michael Jackson had on his Japan tour.

Read more on the 66th CFA Institute Annual Conference blog

About the Author(s)
Rebecca Fender, CFA

Rebecca Fender, CFA, leads the Future of Finance initiative, which is the thought leadership platform for CFA Institute. Her group publishes studies to help investment professionals build their careers and serve their clients more effectively. Their paper Investment Professional of the Future was recently awarded Best Investment Industry Paper of 2019 by Savvy Investor. Ms. Fender has testified before the U.S. House Financial Services Committee AI Task Force on the impact of artificial intelligence on investment roles. She speaks regularly at industry events and has been quoted in the Financial Times, Bloomberg, and the New York Times, among others. Prior to joining CFA Institute, Ms. Fender was a vice president at BlackRock working with pension funds and endowments, and she also worked at Cambridge Associates, where she published research about manager selection. She earned her undergraduate degree in economics from Princeton University and holds an MBA from the Darden School at the University of Virginia.

2 thoughts on “Lessons from a Whistleblower: Putting Integrity into Practice”

  1. It was one of the best sessions for Annual conference, it restored the faith in importance of integrity among professionals.

  2. JK says:

    You make it sound like a good Englishman caught up among the bad Japanese! This is about as simplistic and one sided an account as it can get.

    So Chairman was his “Favorite Uncle” (or shall I say sugar daddy) when he was busy climbing the corporate ladder. And later when they couldn’t get along, sugar daddy becomes a villain?

    And according to news reports, he didn’t win trust of shareholders of Olympus and later got 10 million pounds by suing Olympus, something you didn’t write about and he probably never mentioned. Let’s try to be more thorough with the facts and be objective in how we portray things, that is also integrity!

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