Board changes at Vodafone, which is under fire from investors for its performance and strategy, may buy Sir John Bond some time and give him greater leeway when he takes over as chairman of the mobile operator this summer.
Sir John does not become chairman until July but the pressure is growing on him and Lord MacLaurin, the outgoing chairman, to address shareholders’ concerns.
Last week shareholders in Vodafone vented their dissatisfaction at the steady erosion of value in the shares. Because of Vodafone’s size, few investment groups have been unaffected by its under-performance.
Standard Life Investments, one of the top-10 holders, called on the group to sell its US holdings. Another shareholder has called on the company to abandon share buy-backs in favour of a special dividend. Others with equally large stakes less publicly criticised the group’s ambitions to be a global company. Some blame the problem on communication with shareholders and called for management changes.
On Tuesday some investors read Sir Julian Horn-Smith’s retirement as deputy chief executive and the arrival on the board of the shareholder-friendly face of Tony Watson, former chief executive of Hermes, as a bit of a sop. Mr Watson comes straight out of the Hermes’ tradition of activism.
But most Vodafone investors were unswayed.
“Board appointments don’t make much difference – it is the company’s performance that is wanting,” said one shareholder.
The changes are part of “normal process of succession and refreshing the boardroom”, said another. “Vodafone’s board is good but it has needed refreshing.”
Sir Julian is 56 and has been at Vodafone for 22 years.
However, one shareholder pointed out that Sir Julian’s retirement might reduce the company’s flexibility to impose further management changes on top of the loss of such a senior executive. Another pointed out that it might buy Sir John time.
But when Sir John does become chairman, the balance of Vodafone’s board, made up of 17 international businessmen and women, will have been subtly altered since he first became a Vodafone non-executive director a year ago. The retirement of Sir Julian, one of the architects of Vodafone’s strategy, reduces the number of those that might be seen as natural supporters of its current direction and Arun Sarin, the chief executive.
Since the last annual report, Sir David Scholey, former banker and Ken Hydon, the finance director, have retired. Philip Yea, chief executive of 3i, and Anne Lauvergeon, chairman of Areva, the French energy company, joined the board.