Pick on the Big Guy(s)
We’ve currently got four FTSE C-Level searches live; three FTSE-100, one FTSE-250; two CFOs, two CEOs. It’s a great coup, but the stories behind them are also very telling of the market.
Last year we saw what was branded as ‘Arab Spring’; the uprising in several ‘Arab’ nations, entire populations typically fighting against tyrant leaders, leading to the overthrowing of rulers and ruling families. The scenes were spectacular and gained virtual universal support.
Fast forward a year and we are seeing a similar phenomenon; this time in and around large company board rooms. The perennial media target, the ‘fat cat’, has bred even faster than his/her feline namesake can and has, in the eyes of the media at least, taken residence in every sizeable boardroom in the land. Welcome to ‘Shareholder Spring‘
It started with that new age dawn of the hunting season, 6 months before the ‘Glorious-Twelfth’, Banker Bonus Season. Stephen Hester was the first ‘grouse’ in the hunter’s sight (read about that here “Interfering Bankers”). The man that despite reducing the RBS balance sheet by a staggering £600bn and overall doing a better job than any city analyst expected (against adversely moved goalposts) was a banker, and thus didn’t deserve to be paid.
Unfortunately he bowed to political pressure and didn’t take his bonus. Thus the seed was sown. A section of the public who are seemingly as adverse to personal hygiene as they are to banker’s bonuses, set up camp outside one of the nation’s most important churches as a protest…against someone or something.
Bob Diamond was next. Despite running a business to great success, against a backdrop of a global financial crisis, without Government assistance or infamous ‘bailout’, he was vilified for taking a large remuneration package (of which he gives c25% to Charity). Cue a shareholder revolt, and subsequent media adulation.
Next came the copycats; then came the activists protesting outside AGMs (despite not being shareholders); then came encouragement from Institutional Investors (usually driven personal, political or strategic motives) and then finally came the Shadow Cabinet’s Laurel & Hardy tribute act: Ed Miliband and Chuka Ummuna who as usual had no fresh ideas of their own, but didn’t let it stop them criticising everyone else’s and joining the band-wagon jumping.
Since then virtually every FTSE-150 AGM (and plenty of others) has been marred by a similar revolt.
Back to our current workload.
Let’s be candid, forced change of C-Level execs is good for our business and our industry. We thrive on Executive churn. Every time an executive leaves a position, he/she needs replacing. Thanks to Lord Davies of Abersoch’s assistance, that replacement is encouraged to be female and thus is more difficult to effect, and less likely to be able to be found internally. Ker-Ching.
However, putting selfishness aside, this isn’t good for business; our economy; business confidence, and overall; our country.
Two of our current roles are replacing CEOs directly forced out through a shareholder revolt. CEOs that haven’t posted a financial loss, nor missed city expectations. They have not even seen an abnormal drop in share price over the last two years (obsessions about shareholder value being the usual tool of media corporate hatred) – and yet shareholders and their cohorts, have revolted over the levels of Executive remuneration.
More telling are the other two roles. These are replacing individuals that have simply ‘had enough’.
CEOs of large public businesses typically don’t *need* to work. They have slaved very hard for decades, been well remunerated along the way, and by the time they have had a couple of years in the big seat, have a net worth ensuring financial stability (and pension) that most of us can only dream of.
FTSE-100 CEOs typically perform that job because they want to, not because they need to. Therefore once the enjoyment is at least partially removed through largely ignorant berating of their actions, it is hardly surprising that the individuals call it a day, deciding that enjoyment gained from a couple of NED appointments is a better bedfellow to improving a golf-handicap – or tending to their 350 acre Oxfordshire Arboretum.
The last few days alone have seen two further FTSE-100 CEOs announce their accelerated departure, not through a shareholder revolt, not through normal retirement (both are mid-50s) but solely their decision as the role was not what they want it be – crucially, they are not being left to run the business they lead, instead having to fight the attitude from shareholders, general vigilantes, blood-hungry media…and opposition politicians. Who can blame them?
But this has left two further businesses without a leader. Is that what Shareholders need to protect their interests? The loudest voices don’t care about shareholder interests; they’re not shareholders – merely puppeteers.
…and those two are just the ones that have been announced. I know of three further announcements that will likely be made in the next month or so, C-Level execs that have simply decided that it isn’t worth it – get out before the vigilantes start on them.
Plenty more fish in the sea
Here’s where the story gets interesting. The stock response to Execs (and bankers) threatening to leave is “Go… Plenty more where you came from”. Except there aren’t.
FTSE-150 C-Level Execs are difficult to find at the best of times. The skills required are typically unlike any other role. Businesses within the FTSE-150 are huge – it accounts for c90% of the entire market capitalisation of the London Stock Exchange. Big companies need big experience. Big experience comes from Big companies….and yet the actions of shareholders is persuading the C-Level Execs in waiting to look outside of the environment.
Through the four C-Level searches we are working on, I have had conversations with well over a dozen current C-Level execs in the last 2 days alone, and swapped emails with many more. Most are looking at their options despite being happy within their role and their business, and exceeding all performance metrics. Why? To avoid being targeted by the next band of (semi) ignorant protesters who fail to see why ‘anyone needs to earn more than £XXX’.
Worryingly, most of these individuals are now looking outside of Public Companies. Five conversations this afternoon alone, with five individuals who have all grossed over £1m in the last 12 months, discussing roles which will see that remuneration increase significantly, have all ended in the same way – It just isn’t worth it. Now a good head-hunter can turn that around, and in 3 of those instances I have, but the criteria and opportunities they will consider are still narrower.
If we want our businesses to be the best, we need the best leaders (and the best talent to aspire to be the best leaders). The best leaders don’t need ‘us’ as much as ‘we’ need them. Treat them like an Arab dictator and they will depose themselves and go into hiding.