City: Non-exec is only human

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The Independent Online
JUDGING by David Howell's experience, being a non-executive director is becoming increasingly dangerous. In the US, it's already common practice for aggrieved shareholders to sue for failing to rein in over-zealous executives. Things haven't gone that far in Britain yet, but as Mr Howell - a former energy secretary who took up a string of non-executive directorships and business advisory positions after leaving government - will testify, the experience can be equally bad. With two corporate disasters behind him - Queens Moat and Trafalgar House - his reputation is now as roundly destroyed as if he had been directly responsible for the failures. He's the watchdog that failed to bark, of no use to anyone and now effectively unemployable.

I don't want to apologise for Mr Howell. He probably deserves all he's getting - and some pretty rude things are being said about him in the City, too - but is it not the case that investors expect too much? To many, Mr Howell looks like the classic lazy non-executive, using his name to lend respectability to companies that may not deserve it and picking up a handsome fee for virtually no work. It is also true, however, that he was one of only two non-execs at Queens Moat to ask questions; like the rest of us, he got false answers.

Who are these people with X- ray eyes, these all-seeing non-executives who for a fee of around pounds 10,000 a year, and with only the papers and word of management to go on, are expected to spot the approach of corporate disaster a mile off and give investors and bankers fair warning of it? Most non-execs are little more than outsiders looking in. They attend board meetings and are generally consulted when important decisions are made, but usually they have no more knowledge of the big picture than City analysts or fund managers; where were they to sound the alarm bells?

If shareholders really want a man on the board to look after their interests, they are going to have to pay him a lot more and make him virtually a full-time employee, a kind of company policeman with his own office and staff. But don't bet on there being many applicants; you'd have to be Superman to do the sort of job that whingeing fund managers seem to expect these days.