Any other business

Any other business: Turn down those token directorships, girls, and tell them you want to be chairman

Plus: The Co-op’s latest crisis, and HMRC’s demon eyes

15 March 2014

9:00 AM

15 March 2014

9:00 AM

Last Saturday was International Women’s Day, but we celebrated early in Helmsley when my Yorkshire home town was featured in national news last month as a beacon of recession-beating female entrepreneurship: 60 per cent of our new ventures have female owners. This is shaping up to be a good year for women in business generally, what with Vince Cable voicing support for all-women shortlists for directorships of FTSE 100 companies with a view to achieving 25 per cent representation by 2015, up from 20 per cent today.

The Business Secretary has been busy behind the scenes, too. ‘We had a letter from Vince telling us we should appoint a female non-exec…’ one chief executive told me last week ‘…and we’ve found a really good one, totally one of the boys, she even likes shooting.’ Despite such rampant masculinity, the urge for correctness — about 60 more female appointees will have to be found this year — has made prestigious directorships increasingly accessible to mid-career women who want to side-shift into a portfolio of corporate and charity board duties that allow time for home life as well. Penny Masterley, wife of comic-strip City anti-hero Alex, is a current example of the trend. If you’d like to follow her, I’m told the FT’s Non-Executive Director Diploma course is a good way to attract headhunters’ attention.

The trouble is, just as spiky comediennes resent being treated as quota fodder for BBC panel shows, so smart businesswomen are suspicious of tokenism too. Psychologists often tell us women are less prone than men to extreme risk-taking — and it was me who argued for the recruitment of ‘a cohort of no-nonsense mothers-of-three’ to run our retail banks. But Cable’s campaign is about equality for its own sake rather than the distinctive qualities of female decision-making, and the otherwise already emancipated objects of his support feel themselves patronised. It may be fashionable to say you’ve been offered a FTSE directorship, but soon it will be even more fashionable to say you’ve turned one down because you see no satisfaction in becoming — like Dame Alison Carnwath during her unhappy time on the Diamond-era Barclays board — an unheeded monitor of men behaving badly.

Carnwath is currently the only female chairman of a FTSE company, at Land Securities, though she’s about to be joined by American-born former investment banker Susan Kilsby, who becomes chairman of the Shire pharma group next month. These corporate female bishops have shown their sisters the way: ‘Fifty grand a year to look decorative in your annual report? No thanks, fat boy — but offer me the chair and I’m willing to talk.’ Come to think of it, the Barclays chair will fall vacant next year when incumbent Sir David Walker hits the mandatory retirement age of 75. Step forward, ladies: an all-women shortlist for that one really would be a breakthrough.

The unreformable Co-op

Strange goings-on at the crippled Co-op, where chief executive Euan Sutherland was reported to have tendered his resignation in anger at a leak of plans to pay him £3.6 million for his first year’s work — vastly more than his predecessor, and despite group losses of £2 billion resulting from a black hole in its bank. As a retailer trained in the ways of Currys and Kingfisher, Sutherland evidently feels the Co-op is too politicised to reform, and that elements within it are determined to undermine him.

The benign alternative form of capitalism that the Co-op represents is now on the edge of collapse; survival for a diminished retail and funeral business may come at the cost of closing down the bank. The causes of failure are certainly deeper and wider than the dissolute behaviour of its former chairman, Revd Paul Flowers. But this was clearly the wrong moment to throw salary-doubling ‘retention payments’ at Sutherland and his senior team to persuade them to accept the challenge. Distorted executive pay is a factor in almost every story of a company in trouble, yet the corporate world — obsessed by peer-group comparison — is barely aware of the monster it has created.

Closing in on me?

I felt uneasy when I saw last week’s column in print. Not because I spotted a libel or a hanging preposition, but because of those mysterious female eyes staring at me through a torn map of the world in the advert by HM Revenue & Customs on the facing page. ‘Hiding undeclared income offshore?’ it accused. I assure you I’m not — but it was a striking message, and I’m curious to know why it was there. The campaign with its sinister strap line ‘We’re closing in on you’ was launched in November 2012, but has only recently splashed across the national press. George Osborne’s target is to raise an additional £7 billion of tax revenue in 2014-15 by clamping down on avoidance, evasion and fraud, and with barely a fortnight of 2013-14 left, we might guess that an under-spend of HMRC’s advertising budget has funded a last-minute splurge.

But we might also guess that the Chancellor is not expecting a flood of confessional emails from tax-delinquent Spectator subscribers. Like the Home Office’s ‘In the UK illegally? Go home’ poster vans, these ads are only incidentally aimed at transgressors, much more so at targeted voters. The immigration message was for the Ukip tendency, and the tax message is for the hard-pressed middle classes (that’s you, dear reader, and me) who are affronted by this month’s stream of stories about mega–bonuses for Osborne’s friends in the City.

Those haunting eyes remain a mystery, however. Is she the tax dodger, the detective or the new non-exec on the HMRC board? Is she partially in shadow, or wearing a Muslim hijab? Or is she perhaps the black-hooded beauty who used to appear in Scottish Widows ads, implying that it will be no good trying to hide your undeclared income in the Highlands if Alex Salmond follows my recent advice and tries to turn independent Scotland into a tax haven?

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