Don't shoot chairman for unholy trinity of jobs

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For all the testosterone associated with it, the City at the top level is a very civilised place.

It’s not used to public rows, certainly not one grandee having a go at another; it’s just not done. The preferred way is a quiet murmur here, a pointed word there – but certainly nothing to generate headlines.

Which is why Sir David Walker’s verbal swipe at Sir John Peace is so arresting. These are, after all, two knights and two bank chairmen – Sir David at Barclays, Sir John at Standard Chartered.

What has upset Sir David, apparently, is that he works damn hard at Barclays – five to six days a week, versus his obligation of three to four — while Sir John is chairman of Burberry and Lord-Lieutenant of Nottinghamshire, in addition to chairing Standard.

I confess to having no idea how time-consuming being Lord-Lieutenant of Nottinghamshire really is, but I can’t believe it is that onerous – except, presumably, when Her Majesty visits the county and must be greeted.

No, in mentioning the Nottinghamshire job, Sir David is posting a red herring. What really grates is Burberry and, before that, Sir John’s other  FTSE 100 chairmanship at Experian. He only stepped down at the credit reference agency in the summer, and, until then, was chairman of all three companies. And on his watch each of them has suffered large shareholder rebellions, over executive pay or succession planning or under-performance.

Sir David might not like it, but Sir John is not breaking any regulation. The Financial Reporting Council’s guidelines suggest boards should not agree to someone being chairman at more than one FTSE 100 company, but crucially they do not proscribe multi-chairmanships as such.

Sir John has defended his hat-trick of roles, saying: “In terms of my time commitment, I would be surprised if you found any [of these boards] saying I don’t give the right amount.”

That is the weakness in Sir David’s argument. There are four parties responsible for his counterpart’s multi-tasking: the executive search agencies; Sir John himself; the boards; and the shareholders.

There is also a fifth, the City. As ever with awkward issues of corporate governance, too much is left unsaid. Being chairman of more than one FTSE 100 is frowned upon, but nothing says it must not happen. The preferred way is the unstated, the non-written. A fudge, in other words.

Sir David should aim his attack at a City establishment that in effect sets the rules, and of which he is a fully paid-up member.

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