Goodwill hunting: INTERVIEW - YVE NEWBOLD

The original City superwoman says inequalities are getting out of hand. Ruth Nicholas reports
How many teachers is one chief executive worth ? Fifty? Five hundred? More maybe? Running a public company is demanding but most of us working hard in less well-paid careers don't feel this can justify the increasing disparity in pay between those on the shop floor and the occupants of the boardroom.

Yve Newbold agrees that something is wrong. The City's original "superwoman" has always been an independent thinker. As company secretary at Hanson she managed to maintain her left-of-centre views while working for one of the great capitalists, Lord Hanson.

Now 58, Newbold is a partner at executive search consultants Heidrick & Struggles. In her position, she deals with the highly paid every day and has heard every justification for "over-generous awards".

She acknowledges there are good arguments in favour of the telephone number salaries enjoyed by top executives. "We operate in a free and open market and, therefore, theoretically pay should be whatever the market will bear." However, Newbold knows public sympathy for these arguments is running low. "They seem not to cut much ice with private shareholders, nurses, teachers or any other low-paid hard-working members of the workforce. Academic and public-sector salaries have slipped further down the pay scales. We need to ask ourselves as a society what we value. Is one top chief executive worth 15 teachers? At the moment the answer appears to be yes."

She believes the issue can't be ignored by those at the top: "Corporate Britain has to address this issue. It just can't put its head in the sand and say: `This is really nothing to do with us. It is perfectly all right to pay the teachers of our children a modest salary but it is fine for us to be paid whatever the market will bear - ie the sky's the limit'."

Newbold, who was a founder of the left-leaning think tank Demos, does not pretend to offer an off-the-shelf solution: "There is no quick and easy remedy," she says. "It is hard to tell people that they should act in a more altruistic fashion in this society - 15 to 20 years ago that approach might have worked. But communism having failed and capitalism having seemed to have succeeded, it is hard to try to persuade people to act against their own self-interest."

If gentle persuasion is all but useless, the worst of all worlds would be government regulation or legislation, she continues. "The Government is rightly in a wait-and-see mode towards big business. If the corporate world can grasp the fact that its pay awards are seen as unacceptably high among people who ought to matter and scale down some of its worst excesses, then nothing may need to be done."

Complacency at every level is the enemy. Tony Blair's government has gone out of its way to prove itself business-friendly and has lulled executives into thinking they are under what is virtually a Tory government.

"That is a wrong view and a short-sighted one," Newbold says. "I believe that in its second term [Labour] will show itself to be more robust about the principles it believes in in relation to business."

She points to the Government's review of company law as a good opportunity for new Labour to show its colours. "We might see measures taken whereby all directors of public companies must come up for re-election every year, which would give the shareholders the opportunity to vote for or against a particular director about whom they feel strongly," says the woman who heads the independent inquiry into shareholder voting launched by the National Association of Pension Funds. That is a terrifying prospect for anyone who believes in long-term strategic planning.

Yve Newbold herself can be terrifying. She is incredibly elegant and aloof in person and an attempt to interrupt our interview was met with a look that would stop a charging rhino. She doesn't need to raise her voice and on occasion she looks as if she could have taught Lady Thatcher a thing or two about being firm. Yet when I spoke to her on the phone the next day she charmed me. She laughed about the time she had to dress up as Donald Duck at a party when she worked as Disney's European counsel. Then she told me how she would never completely stop loving her ex- husband, from whom she has been divorced for many years.

Ms Newbold knows more than most about succeeding in difficult circumstances - she took her Law Finals at 25, while eight-and-a-half months pregnant with her fourth child. She has no time for executives who take the rewards without making a success of their businesses, but is encouraged by recent examples of performance-related packages reducing senior executives' pay in line with market performance. She is keen to see remuneration committees take a more robust stance: "Some are beginning to seek independent professional advice when examining complex or generous incentive plans and are finding the confidence to exert their own judgement."

Newbold is quick to point out that, seven years on from the Cadbury report, we lead Europe in good corporate governance practice. But she feels strongly that British boardrooms desperately need diversity. "The representation of women is little short of parlous. In the FT-SE top 15, 12 companies have only one woman on the board and three companies have two. All of them are non-executive directors. Not until you reach the 41st [in terms of market capitalisation] can you find a woman chief executive. Yet women comprise nearly 50 per cent of the workforce. In my own profession over 50 per cent of all newly qualifying solicitors are female. The representation of ethnic minorities is worse.

"The result is a degree of cloning in the boardroom that leads to the appearance of clubbiness and complacency. Women and ethnic minorities should not be seen as a nuisance element to be patronised by token appointments, but as a vibrant voice that would add value and richness," she says.

The self-perpetuating selection procedures for non-executive directors have to be changed: "As Professor John Kay said: `Can one have confidence in a system where the monitored choose the monitors?' Many non-execs are taken from broadly the same pool, you get the same faces coming up again and again, which means that a single individual can seed his ideas though a multiplicity of companies. That may be no bad thing - if his ideas are right."

Newbold notes that a degree of mutuality, with senior figures appearing on each other's boards, weakens credibility in the eyes of the public because it looks as if fat cats are simply scratching each other's backs by voting each other's salaries through. The more robust and independent non-execs can be, the more they can set incentives that are stretching, she argues.

She would like more training for non-execs. "Well over 90 per cent of non-execs have never received any coaching, yet the role is now complex and its full legal implications are rarely understood. I believe all non- execs should receive some independent guidance prior to their first appointment."

When I suggest that she's advocating a school for non-executives, she dismisses the idea as "patronising". Yet her forthright views on this suggest an old-fashioned school-marm. In one of her other roles, Newbold is governor of a small Roman Catholic school in Camden. I can see why.