Rolls-Royce has named Anita Frew as its next chair, making her the first woman to be appointed to that role in the 115-year history of the British aero-engine group.
Frew, who currently chairs Croda, the UK chemicals group, will succeed Sir Ian Davis who leaves the role in October after almost nine years.
The appointment of the Scot to chair what is still widely seen as the UK’s premier engineering company, despite a difficult few years, is a boost to the representation of women in British boardrooms.
Rolls-Royce is one of the few companies in which the government owns a golden share, giving it the power to protect it from takeover attempts.
“The European aerospace and defence industry is woefully short of women, especially women executives and especially so if you compare it with the situation in the US,” said Nick Cunningham, analyst at Agency Partners.
Frew has held a succession of non-executive roles over the past two decades across a broad range of sectors. She is currently a non-executive director of miner BHP Group and until recently was deputy chair of Lloyds Banking Group.
Frew started her career at Scottish Provident and Royal Bank of Scotland. She was also director of corporate development under Sir Martin Sorrell when he ran the advertising giant WPP.
Her appointment, nevertheless, took by surprise some company observers who had expected a well-known big-hitter to emerge.
Sir Kevin Smith, Rolls-Royce senior independent director, said Frew had emerged as the “outstanding candidate” among a wide field of candidates.
“She might not be front-page news for everybody, but I can tell you there is a depth and capability there that is very strong,” he told the Financial Times, adding that “she gets things done”.
Frew will join Rolls-Royce at a critical juncture and, together with chief executive Warren East, faces the task of steering the group back to financial health.
The sharp falls in air travel during the pandemic meant much of the group’s income dried up. Long-term contracts that pay per number of hours that its engines fly are a mainstay of Rolls-Royce’s civil aerospace division, which accounts for roughly half of the group’s revenues.
The company was forced to shore up its balance sheet with £7.3bn of new equity and debt last year. It also launched a disposal programme and a large restructuring that will lead to 9,000 jobs being cut — almost a fifth of the total workforce.
Even before the pandemic, Rolls-Royce was struggling to recover from an expensive programme of repairs and compensation to airlines as a result of technical problems on its Trent 1000 engines.
Davis spent much of his time in the company fighting crises. Rolls-Royce had a market capitalisation of £21.2bn in May 2013 but it has since fallen to £9.2bn.
He presided over the tenure of Rolls-Royce’s previous chief executive, John Rishton, whose record in office was marred by a series of profit warnings and investigations into alleged bribery and corruption. Davis brought in East as chief executive in 2015.
“There is no question the tenure has been dominated by crises, both internal and external. You have to deal with what you have to deal with,” Davis told the FT.
He insisted, however, that he would be leaving the group at a time when the “direction, the strategy is increasingly clear”.
Despite the strain on its finances, Davis said he was proud of the fact that Rolls-Royce had sustained its investment in research and development. “We have made huge progress on the technological advancement of Rolls-Royce into [areas such as] electrical, artificial intelligence and data. I believe, along with the board, that these are factors rather than engineering and industrial alone that will shape the company and the industry in the next 10 years.”
Shares in the company rose 1 per cent to 112.90p by late afternoon on Wednesday.
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