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Business Analysis & Features

The top tables where Brits no longer rule

Vodafone's appointment of Gerard Kleisterlee this week means only two of the top six companies in the UK have British chairmen. But does it matter?

It doesn't say a lot for the strength in depth of Britain's business management talent that four out of our top six companies are now chaired by foreigners now does it?

Vodafone's appointment of the Dutchman Gerard Kleisterlee, the outgoing boss of electronics giant Philips, to replace Sir John Bond as chairman is part of a growing trend.

In total 27 of the chairmen of FTSE 100 companies now hail from overseas. But this is a trend that is almost unique to UK companies among big industrialised economies. A cursory look at the boards of the biggest German, French and American companies will show that the men (and they're usually men) who chair their boards almost always hail from Germany, France or America.

Is this something we should be concerned about, though? The veteran city commentator David Buik, a partner at BGC Partners, certainly thinks so. He started a debate when he highlighted the issue in his blog.

Yesterday he explained his position, saying: "When it comes to a managing director or a chief executive, fine [to hire overseas]. But a chairman's role is to execute the policy of the board to make sure it is carried out (as well as liaising with major shareholders). If you mean to tell me that you can't find half-a-dozen top flight former chief executives, diplomats, civil servants, even politicians to become chairmen, well then I'm deeply disappointed."

And he's not alone in his lamentation of the apparent dearth of indigenous talent at the top of British business.

But others are not so sure that there is a a problem. Quite the reverse. They see the ability (and the willingness) of the top British companies to hire from a global pool of corporate talent as a source of strength. And a reflection of the openness of the UK.

David Peters, managing partner for the chief executive and board practice (EMEA) at Heydrich & Struggles, says: "I don't think this should be a worry. I actually think that it is encouraging and shows that boards are raising their game, and are more open to appointing people who have the knowledge and strategic ability to implement their plans. If you are looking at developing markets, for example, you need people with the right skills set and experience of working there. These people are international businessmen. They are not just from one country."

Kit Bingham, principal at Odgers Berndtson, the executive search firm, says: "If you look at the top six, their revenues from the UK are a fraction of the total. In fact 75 per cent of the revenues from FTSE 100 companies as a whole are from overseas." Mr Bingham notes that in the second-tier FTSE 250 index, whose constituents' business profiles are much more UK centric, only 19 of the chairmen hail from overseas.

But in general he, like Mr Peters, says it is a "good thing" that British companies are willing to hire the best talent, regardless of nationality, and a source of some strength.

"It is a great signal of London as a financial capital. About how open it is," he says. "The only potential concern would be whether these people have quite the depth of understanding of UK unitary boards (on the Continent boards are split into non-executive supervisory boards and executive boards running the company)." But Mr Bingham says this is a relatively small worry given the benefits.

Steve Tappin is the chief executive of Xinfu whose staff serve as "global confidants" for top directors. He works with 12 of the FTSE 100 chief executives and collaborated on the book Secrets of the CEOs. He notes that there is a limited pool of talent for top companies to choose from when seeking a chairman. And he says some of Britain's bigger companies have experienced problems when they have tried to globalise their businesses. He points to this as one reason for the overseas hiring spree among Britain's biggest corporations.

"When chief executives have tried to globalise they haven't always had good chairmen to support them. But I think this [trend] also shows that we are perhaps more open here in Britain than in the US, France or Germany, where there is a stronger current of nationalism. Perhaps it's partly because of our history that we are more willing to hiring internationally than our international competitors are."

The research, too, suggests diverse boards are strong boards. Says Mark Batey, joint chair of the Psychometrics at Work Research Group at Manchester Business School, says: "Research very strongly demonstrates that the more diverse a group is, the more flexible and creative it is because its members can tap into different ways of working and different experiences.

What about the investors whom the chairman is there to serve? A spokesman for the Association of British Insurance simply says: "It is for [companies'] nomination Committees to choose the best available candidate for the role. That will depend on the circumstances of the company and the nature and reach of its business."

But despite this consensus there still remains a lingering doubt. There are some who might fear that one consequence of corporate Britain's willingness to hire overseas is that the rest of Britain might suffer as a result as those companies shun what is, when all is said and done, still their home. After all, if a French company or a German company decides they need to cut staff, the perception is that they usually target their home markets last of all (although that might be as much down to their labour laws as it is nationalism).

On the other hand HSBC is one of only two of Britain's six biggest companies that boasts a British chairman, in the form of the Scotsman Douglas Flint. The same HSBC that has been loudly muttering about conditions in the City of London, with the implication that it might prefer life headquartered in Hong Kong. Patriotism and business, it seems, don't mix.