MT Business Lifeforms: The Toxic Director

CLAIRE FRANCK, chief executive of Bourne Communications

by
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Break out the options! Claire Franck has been appointed CEO of Bourne Communications. Wafting into the firm's Holborn HQ on a wave of glitz and well-connected glamour, she takes over from the long-serving Sir Dennis Frobisher and it's hoped she can restore the ailing media giant's fortunes.

Nothing wrong with Sir Dennis, of course - great man and all that - it's just that sometimes a new broom is needed to sweep away old problems.

The sycophants and yes-people are out en masse, lauding her as someone who brings a 'wealth of experience working with troubled companies'. Friends are lining up to gush fulsomely about how this uber-exec (and a woman, too) will bring back the glory days at Bourne. Publicly, the City is united in its praise.

In private, though, things are a little different. Many brokers are advising clients to dump Bourne shares ('like a sock full of crap', as one puts it) the second the honeymoon fillip is over. Cream, they say, is not the only thing that floats to the top.

Daughter of upper-middle class parents, our toxic director grew up in rural Nottinghamshire and, after impressive A-level grades and making Head Girl, went to Oxford.

Contemporaries recall an attractive, bright, hard-working girl who believed she was in line for a first and got into an awesome snit when a mere 2.1 materialised. She also had a gift for networking, and it seemed natural that she should join McKinsey after graduating.

Franck was there for six years, as McKinsey was wiggling out of the chrysalis of workaday consultancy to become a byword for incubating future leaders - and for breathtaking arrogance. When she left, it's said she took a bit too much of the latter. She spent a couple of years at a City headhunter being paid handsomely, but left when she fell out with the other partners.

Her valedictory spat was the stuff of legend. The threatened lawsuits came to nothing, but Franck married a lawyer she met during the episode - a rising star of the bar who was a good friend of Cherie Booth.

The incident served only to enhance Franck's growing reputation (abrasiveness was in vogue in the '80s) and soon she joined the board of EBED, a medium-sized magazine publisher. Put in charge of new launches, she rose to the challenge with an aggressive salvo of titles - everything from teens to business - and EBED's fortunes waxed rich. Directors urging caution were bulldozed by Franck.

In two years she was MD and, like many surfing the crest of an economic wave, came to view herself as a visionary. Her self-regard was infectious.

Soon she sat as a non-exec on four other boards, to which she brought an undeniable touch of glamour. With her designer power suits and outspoken views, sexy and scary in equal measure, she became one of the best-known faces in the City. Then in the early '90s recession struck. EBED haemorrhaged value like a stuck pig. Franck bailed out before things got really bad, having perfected the art of taking the credit when things go well and blaming others when they don't.

As many were still dazzled by her, her rehabilitation was shorter than the average stay in the Priory. Months later, she was installed as deputy CEO at a promising advertising agency. Again, there were the golden years and even genuinely innovative, edgy advertising. Franck was briefly the toast of Soho. But within a year the agency was toast.

Her reputation refused to tarnish. By now - the late '90s - there were plenty of profligate millennium projects for those who couldn't hack it in the private sector, and plenty of cash-rich dot.coms for those who shouldn't have been in business at all. Franck didn't even have to apply.

A couple of words in the right ears and she was burning through VC and lottery cash.

Dot.com dot.bombed and Franck, like most involved in the bubble, simply walked away. Her job co-ordinating millennium projects was a different matter, though. She found she'd met her match in the chairman of the committee, Sir David Saunders. The bluff Yorkshireman called her a jumped-up consultant.

She called him an old fossil. Luckily for Franck, this immovable object couldn't be bothered to pursue an acrimonious spat so close to retirement.

Late last year, her name was bandied about as a suitable replacement for Bourne's Sir Dennis, despite being anything but. Still, although her peers remain prepared to give her the benefit of the doubt, the investment community may be losing patience. As one analyst puts it: 'If I could buy shares in Franck, I'd invest my pension. But invest in one of the companies she runs? You'd be safer in Iraqi government bonds.'

FRANCK IN A TRICE

1958: Born 1 May 1958. Educated at Sherwood Grammar, Notts, and Oxford University

1980-86: Executive, McKinsey & Co

1986: Director, new projects, EBED Publishing

1988: Managing director, EBED Publishing

1990: Deputy CEO, Self & Self Advertising

1994: CEO, S&S Advertising

1996: Chairperson, foolsgold.com, NED, dineonline.com

1997: CEO, National Millennium Steering Group

1998: NED, monfo.com, Neomondo Group (incubator)

2000: Sacked as CEO of NMS Group

2001: Large number of dot.com sinecures go under; B2C means back to consultancy

2004: CEO, Bourne Communications

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

Subscribe

Get your essential reading delivered. Subscribe to Management Today