UK: Two's not company for some - SEPARATING CHAIRMAN AND CHIEF EXECUTIVE.

UK: Two's not company for some - SEPARATING CHAIRMAN AND CHIEF EXECUTIVE. - Divide and rule better may be a trendy theory but it is not catching on everywhere.

by
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Divide and rule better may be a trendy theory but it is not catching on everywhere.

These days it is fashionable for pundits to talk about the desirability of separating the roles of chairman and chief executive. The splash following the departure of Robert Maxwell and the subsequent revelations, did not, of course, lessen fears about power-hungry egomaniacs, unchecked by boards, plunging companies into crisis.

A number of companies have recently accepted the separate roles thesis, latest among them Fisons, the pharmaceutical firm. In January, John Kerridge retired on grounds of ill health - his own, though the company he piloted from bankruptcy is also ailing. New executive chairman Patrick Egan is now looking for a sidekick.

Earlier in the year, Ratners took a similar step. With losses zooming to £72 million, James McAdam took over as chairman of the jewellery chain from Gerald Ratner, whose gaffe about the quality of his sherry decanter attracted a public scrutiny which would not have offset the effects of recession on the company.

But, a look at Britain's top companies soon shows that the resolution that "what we have we hold" is still strong. Of 131 quoted companies which participated in the 1991 Korn/Ferry Board of Directors Study UK, 30% had chairmen who were also chief executives. Twelve months later there is little perceptible change. Ten of the top 50 companies in The Sunday Times Top 100 are headed by men who combine the roles (see table).

Nor are some doing so badly that a nudge about a change would be timely. Technically, Garry Weston's only title at sugar and bread group Associated British Foods, is chairman. But, with neither a chief executive nor a managing director, there's no disputing who runs the shop.

Weston has kept his profits looking sweet. The same can be said of Sir Allen Sheppard, the man who purchased Pillsbury in a midnight raid on America's Mid West. In his hands, the booze-to-burgers operation has grown to a market value in excess of £9 billion and has its eye on Cinzano. Then there is stand-alone Sir Richard Greenbury at Marks and Spencer. He, too, has put in a sterling performance. Redundancy costs (not a feature of M and S management previously) of £16.9 million and the rise in VAT took a bite out of interim pre-tax profits. They were down for the first time in a decade last year but operating profits increased 0.4%, recession or no. Sir Richard's swordsmanship should save some £209 million this year. In other reaches of the corporate domain, Peter Bonfield, who put all his chips on ICL to make it Europe's fourth biggest mainframe manufacturer, seems content with his double act. So too, Roger Hurn, head of successful Smiths Industries, the avionics to medical systems group. And by no means are these examples of men who have long been in their posts.

Greenbury took on the two-fold M and S mantle only last April; Hurn was promoted co-chairman of Smiths last November; and, as further evidence that having all the reins in one pair of hands still has strong appeal, Tony Greener, chief executive of Guinness, is soon to acquire the chairmanship, too.

It is indisputable that even when the roles of chairman and chief executive are split, there is no guarantee that tycoons are tamer. One could hardly believe at Lonrho for instance, that Sir Edward Du Cann, when chairman, was able to gainsay Tiny Rowland, nominally chief executive, but, of course the real power.

Du Cann's successor, Rene Leclezio, one imagines, will have a no less daunting job, despite the advance billing of Paul Spicer, Lonrho's spokesman. "He (Leclezio) may say he is a man from the bush. But let me tell you - Napoleon came from nowhere. Leclezio is a giant of international repute in his field ... He is strong and articulate, a giant with a huge following in our group," Spicer told The Sunday Telegraph. All very resounding but when he met Wellington, Napoleon ended nowhere, too.

Concentration of power is a matter of concern but separation of powers has obviously not convinced everyone and if the unconvinced are people presently holding two sets of reins and making profits, too, then neither these nor theories will make much difference.

CHAIRMEN WHO ARE ALSO CHIEF EXECUTIVES

NAME COMPANY MARKET CAP (£m)

Robert Horton BP 15,208

Robert Evans British Gas 10,229

Sir Allen Sheppard GrandMet 9,321

Sir Richard Greenbury Marks and Spencer 7,428

Ian Prosser Bass 4,458

Peter Davis Reed Intnl 2,911

Sir Alistair Grant Argyll Group 3,130

Colin Southgate Thorn EMI 2,475

Geoffrey Mulcahy Kingfisher 2,252

Gary Weston Assoc British Foods 2,094

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