THE HUMAN FACTOR: Ross Goobey and his Hermes team don't just ask aggressive questions: they take aggressive actions. It gets them few invites to Glyndebourne

THE HUMAN FACTOR: Ross Goobey and his Hermes team don't just ask aggressive questions: they take aggressive actions. It gets them few invites to Glyndebourne - This summer has been enlivened by a series of public rows between companies and investors. Plun

by PATIENCE WHEATCROFT, business and City editor of The Times
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

This summer has been enlivened by a series of public rows between companies and investors. Plunging stock prices have heightened shareholder anger over failings in corporate strategy and rampant boardroom greed.

Yet whenever time comes for the two sides to be ushered into the ring, the fury subsides. The crowd gathered in anticipation of a fight is left wondering what all the fuss was about.

At Marconi, Vodafone, Marks & Spencer and British Telecom, behaviour that had prompted investors to shriek for corporate decapitations has been meekly waved through when put to the vote. Even the most fervently criticised resolutions have been approved with impressive majorities.

Assembled boards have sat through the protests of a few private shareholders at annual meetings, but these raised voices fail to translate into votes on a fearsome scale. The powerful shareholders, the institutional investors, have stayed away from the meetings and, largely, cast their votes as the directors would have wished.

It is hard not to conclude that Britain's institutional investors are a wimpish bunch. Yet a North American businessman, now chief executive of a UK company, tells me he has been shocked by the aggressive questioning he is put through by institutional analysts as he does his regular rounds of the City. He thought British institutions would be less challenging than their American equivalents. But all that aggression behind closed doors seems somewhat pointless if it does not translate into action, as it does in the US.

British investors claim that their power is best exerted in private; that it does no good for companies, or their share prices, for disagreements to end up in pitched battles in the public arena. They maintain that, behind the scenes, their tough stance produces results. But if that argument held good, companies would not be treating shareholders with the disdain that we have seen so abundantly of late. Privately voiced objections to the scale of Sir Christopher Gent's remuneration package caused the directors such little concern that they went ahead with it anyway, promising only that they would conduct a review of pay policy for the future. Any institutional investor who considers that a victory was probably to be found on 8 June toasting the Tories for their splendid performance in the election.

Investors who do not like the way a company is being run have one obvious sanction: they can sell the shares. That is what happened at M&S where, by the time the shares reached their low point, all the major UK funds had dramatically cut back their stakes, leaving activist US institutions as the biggest holders. But selling out may not be a viable option for the manager, given the prevalence of tracker funds, and it is certainly not the best option for Britain. Research by consultants McKinsey concluded that the best corporate governance enhanced share values and profitability by 18%.

Ironically, just as the pressure is mounting for those who control most of Britain's major companies to take their ownership responsibilities more seriously, one man who was an early convert to the idea has announced that he will soon be retiring from the fray. But Alistair Ross Goobey will leave behind an organisation with an entrenched determination not to take any nonsense from company directors.

Ross Goobey made Hermes the fund manager that members of the old-boys'-club brand of boardroom practice may not be keen to welcome on to their share register. His team don't just ask aggressive questions: they take aggressive actions. And although one investor cannot swing a vote, Hermes has shown itself capable of encouraging others to join a campaign. Ross Goobey led the successful opposition to extended contracts for directors. And Hermes led the fight that saw David Montgomery ousted as chief executive of the Mirror Group.

While other fund managers muttered that they could not get too closely involved with companies in case they were deemed insiders and so unable to trade in the stock, Hermes proclaimed that there would be occasions when it would accept insider status as the price of working with a company to achieve a better result.

A former member of the Cambridge Footlights, Ross Goobey has been prepared to shine the spotlight on what he deems unacceptable behaviour in the boardroom. Unlike many fund managers, he is happy for Hermes to take a stance that will not make him first choice when companies are drawing up their guest list for Glyndebourne or Henley. It takes courage to stand up to the establishment of corporate Britain. We need a bit more of it.

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