He's Coming in on a Wing and a Prayer

Article excerpt

AS a candidate for the job, he was anything but promising. The advert specified someone with City experience, but Christopher Daws was an accountant who came from industry.

"I don't think I fulfilled any of the criteria," he says. But when they interviewed him, the Church Commissioners decided he was the man to sort out their tangled and ailing finances. He had, at least, been the treasurer of a large parish church, St Mary's Reigate, although that could hardly count as sufficient training for the job he took over in January.

The Church Commissioners handle pounds 2.5bn of investments, contributing pounds 146m to the Church of England's running costs last year - about a quarter of the total. Most of the rest comes from local diocesan and parish funds, and from congregational giving.

The commissioners pay the pensions of all retired churchmen and the stipends of most ministers. They are thus central to the church's finances. They are also in a terrible mess.

Christopher Daws, fair haired and rather boyish-looking, is now in charge of their finances and investments. Until recently, that was not regarded as a particularly demanding position but the antics of the commission during the 1980s left it in a parlous state.

Mr Daws's task is to clear out of the Augean stables, a process that requires, among other things, the General Synod to agree to a reduction in the commissioners' overall contribution to church funds. The indications are promising. recently, the synod received the commissioners' latest annual report with some approval.

Mr Daws is determined to introduce techniques that are standard in industry but unfamiliar to the commissioners. He is well qualified to do so. After training and working at Coopers & Lybrand, he worked at Cadbury-Schweppes and Dowty, the engineering group. He then joined a management team buying out Sycamore Holdings, the building materials group, but their high hopes of running an expanding business quickly evaporated.

"When we got in there we found the accounts contained all kinds of hidden horrors - it was a can of worms. Instead of expanding, we found we had to sell a lot of businesses instead."

It seemed to dampen his enthusiasm for working in industry, too. After 18 months, Daws left for the Church Commissioners, where any problems were at least out in the open.

Although he is a church- goer, he did not join through any particular religious vocation to save the church's finances, he says. It was simply a different job with a challenge. "I've always gone for interesting jobs and let my career look after itself."

One of the first techniques he brought with him to the commissioners was the habit of making long-term plans. "I'm mainly interested in the way the finances of an organisation unfold over 20 or even 50 years."

Until recently, the commissioners seemed to find it hard to look more than about a year ahead with any clarity. During the 1980s the property fund manager, Michael Hutchings, turned the commissioners into a big property developer.

Famous for his large cigars and his aversion to travelling by air, he bought properties all over Britain and the US and borrowed more than pounds 500m to increase the commissioners' property exposure.

The timing, of course, was all wrong. The market collapsed in the recession, leaving the organisation with expensive borrowings. …