Magazine article Management Today

Inside Out

Magazine article Management Today

Inside Out

Article excerpt

When you reach a certain age and seniority in British industry, when the daily grind begins to pall and your juniors are competing for your job, you are fit for only one thing: a portfolio life as non-executive director of an assortment of UK blue-chip companies.

Sir Michael Perry, former chairman of Unilever, is best of breed. At 67, he recently retired from the Marks & Spencer board. But he remains chairman of Centrica and of Dunlop Slazenger, deputy chairman of Bass, and a member of Royal Ahold's supervisory board.

He also holds a clutch of similar posts at influential nonprofit making organisations. These include the chair of the Government's senior salaries review body -- the ultimate remuneration committee', setting pay for the top end of Whitehall and ministers.

Perry, the quintessential 'safe pair of hands', is in select company. Where the French establishment has its enorques, corporate UK has its rather less homogeneous elite, a clutch of men (and they are mostly men) who are supposed to act as the stewards of proper behaviour at leading companies and government quangos.

Lord Stevenson, the one-time management consultant, is another eminence. When he is not choosing people's peers for the House of Lords and advising Tony Blair on the use of IT in schools, he chairs Pearson and the Halifax. Then there is Sir Roger Hum, chairman of Prudential, outgoing chairman of Marconi, a non-exec at GlaxoSmithKline and recently selected by Gazenove, the influential stockbroker, to be one of its first ever non-execs.

There are perhaps only a dozen individuals in total who occupy the first-class non-executive seats, and another 50 in business class. And for some time the best-appointed seat has been occupied by Lord Marshall, chairman of British Airways, former president of the CBI, chairman of Invensys, director of HSBC and retiring deputy chairman of BT.

Now, a conspiracy theorist might construct a wonderfully sinister narrative about the real rulers of Britain, a clandestine unelected oligarchy. You could show that Lord Goodfella sits on Tim Brasstack's board, who in turn chairs the brewer run by Sir Anthony Etonandguards. who chairs Blair's commission on the use of asylum-seekers to lay broadband cables, which are manufactured by Lord Goodfella's company.

But my main concern about this racket is not that it is undermining democracy but that it is ineffective at fulfilling its primary duty -- looking after the interests of shareholders. This was demonstrated in the most delicious way recently at United Business Media, whose non-execs approved bonuses being paid to executives as a reward for selling certain assets - a practice frowned on by investment institutions. …

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