Expert View: Never underestimate the impact of talented people

The loss of key individuals can be devastating to businesses
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The Independent Online

The markets were shocked last week by the tragic death of David Walton, a member of the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee, at the age of just 43.

I had come across David many times professionally. He was an outstanding economist who made a big difference to the direction of UK monetary policy. Markets fluttered because he was the MPC's lone hawk, proposing a rate increase at the last two votes. But more importantly, he is credited, beside Gavyn Davies, with inven- ting Gordon Brown's famous "Golden Rule" - a crucial part of our recent economic history.

For me, this was a sad reminder of the importance of individuals. The extent to which one person can make a difference - the "Cleopatra's nose" theory of history - has long been a matter of academic debate. The alternative school of thought is that what are important are the underlying macro socio-economic trends, which individuals are merely put in place to serve.

I believe individuals always do make a difference, and in the financial world this is being recognised. Their removal, whether through resignation or ill health, can be devastating to businesses. As a consequence - in our industry, as in no other - complex reward systems have grown up, coupled with retention schemes and succession plans, so that businesses can minimise the risk of being left bereft of important people.

When interviewing job candidates, it can now take a good 10 minutes, and many notes, to get one's mind round the compensation package. Long-term incentive plans, vested options, lock-ins, shadow equity schemes, deferred bonuses, trail commissions - the list of golden handcuffs gets longer all the time.

The practice is not confined to the likes of investment banks. The pharmaceuticals giant Astra- Zeneca has announced plans to pay loyalty bonuses to nearly 300 staff at the recently acquired Cambridge Antibody Technology, and even dear old BT put in place special golden handcuffs for senior executives last year. But it is still in the financial world that they are most common - particularly in the fight for talent among bankers and asset managers.

An extraordinary battle broke out last week between two investment houses over one fund manager: Tim Callaghan. Having decided to leave Gartmore for Resolution, Mr Callaghan was lured back at the 11th hour, reportedly for an equity stake in excess of £1m. All of this was played out in the press.

It isn't just the "stars" who are seen as indispensable. With the increasing use of complex financial instruments, the technical "geeks" are also becoming more important. Take collateralised debt obligations, one of the most sophisticated instruments currently in use. May's Asset Securitization Report, a City newsletter, is full of references to "the potential risk posed to a CDO if the individual perceived as key to the transaction should leave".

Some City human resources teams are working on more sophisticated ways to manage "key person risk", rather than just throwing money at it. Succession planning is becoming big in the Square Mile, and not before time. It is still much more common in industry, but even there it is reported that 54 per cent of employers among the FTSE 350 still do not have plans in place for replacing top staff.

From the investor's point of view, key person risk should be a big factor in assessing a company's worth. I was fascinated reading about a company called Intervest Bancshares, which has carved out a niche in the New York lending market with $1.7bn (£935m) in assets. It employs around 80 bankers but analysts are concerned about the admission from Jerry Dansker, the 87-year-old chairman, that the bank really only has one and a half lenders because, ultimately, the biggest decisions came down to just him and his son (the half).

In the world of finance and business, talented individuals are crucial. Anyone who ignores this will neither make money nor keep it.