Is working for the Red Squirrel Survival Trust a useful qualification for joining the board of a £400bn fund manager? Well, not obviously, so try this: is being the principal beneficiary of nearly half the voting shares in the £10bn company rather more helpful?
Next week the shareholders in Schroders get the chance to debate these questions, which have divided the corporate governance police, with one (Glass Lewis) saying no, and another (Institutional Shareholder Services) seeing merit in squirrel survival. Or perhaps, seeing logic in having a member of a family with voting control on the board.
My father was a long-term holder of Schroders shares, and I have bought more since he died, but we are mere short-termists compared with the family. Leonie Schroder is the fifth generation since the company was founded in 1804, joining the board after her father Bruno died earlier this year.
But this is not how corporate governance is supposed to work. Glass Lewis questions whether, “in representing her family interests, she has sufficient core industry or sector experience to effectively challenge management”. It is the classic one-size-fits-all recommendation from the box-tickers.
Never mind that Schroders’ management has made its governmentally correct rivals at Standard Life Aberdeen and Janus Henderson look like amateurs, or that in an inspired decision, her father sold the firm’s core business of investment banking when it was worth something, rather than see it destroyed by the American giants.
Neither we nor Glass Lewis know whether Ms Schroder will effectively challenge the management, although a glance at the share register would concentrate their minds wonderfully in the event of a dispute. Like Associated British Foods with Primark or Daily Mail and General Trust with Euromoney, companies controlled by an engaged dynasty allow the board to take a genuine long view to nurture promising businesses.
The smart ones also know when to bring in outside talent. Ahead of next week’s annual meeting of Schroders, both governance firms criticise the proposed £6.2m bonus for chief executive Peter Harrison. This has little prospect of being voted down, although it does indeed look pretty gross. Still, at least nobody can complain that all the rewards are being kept in the family.
Swing that axe, Liz!
Apparently HS2, the fastest white elephant on wheels, will generate £90bn in economic benefits, far outweighing the costs, across Britain, providing a significant boost to the country’s economy and its connectivity.
So says Darren Caplan, but he is chief executive of the Railway Industry Association, lobbying desperately to spare the project from the infrastructure review promised by Liz Truss for later this year. Should she survive as Treasury chief secretary, it is hard to see a project more deserving of the chop than HS2.
Study after study has concluded that it is not worth building, even before calculating the misery of those living in its path. There are dozens of smaller rail projects which offer far better value and which could be completed for a fraction of the likely cost of HS2. The Department for Transport (pilloried as DaFT in Private Eye) may already be Whitehall’s worst; like the railways, it badly needs electrifying.
Now mind the store, Mike
Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser, runs the adage. Nobody could accuse Mike Coupe of being a good loser now that the Competition and Markets Authority has seen through his wheeze to solve Sainsbury’s chronic problems by merging with Asda.
His tone towards the CMA has been belligerent throughout. From demanding more time, to his savage response to the interim findings, he behaved as if he knew the rules better than the authority. However, his response to the final ruling to block the deal, that “the CMA is today effectively taking £1bn out of customers’ pockets” is as absurd as it is grandiloquent.
It would never have been possible to measure the price cuts due to the merger, and the reaction of the share price, falling to a 26-year low, is hardly consistent with the loss of an extra £1bn for shoppers. Freed from the excitement and distraction of the deal, Mr Coupe has much to do, not least to prove he is a good loser after all.
A full list of Neil Collins’ financial interests can be found at www.ft.com/collinsportfolio
Get alerts on UK equities when a new story is published