Smart Moves: Whisper in the chairman's ear

A career as a company secretary can put you on a fast track to the board room, writes Wilf Altman
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The Independent Online
Even 20 years ago a company secretary was likely to be someone who had done well in the business and was appointed to the post for the last few years before retirement. Then the job became more technical and called for a qualified person. Today the company secretary has become a key player in the top management team, providing strong support and advice to the directors. Remuneration packages for highly qualified professionals reflect the levels of responsibility involved.

At a relatively young age, a bright company secretarial professional with a sizeable PLC can earn a base salary of pounds 30,000 to pounds 60,000 per year plus bonus. As head of department, the salary can range up to pounds 100,000 and beyond. Company secretaries who are also responsible for legal affairs in an FT-SE 100 company may earn a package in excess of pounds 200,000.

The main change is that the job today carries more responsibility than ever before. Company secretaries still have a primary duty to deal with statutory and stock-exchange compliance, but now the role is likely to encompass responsibility for the company's legal activities, risk-management administration, intellectual property, security, the fabric of buildings, as well as services which are outsourced - ensuring they are cost-effective. Beyond all this they are now expected to handle complex projects such as acquisitions or disposals, closures and relocations.

What isn't always recognised about the company secretary's role is its pivotal opportunity - making one's mark on the board, keeping it on the right side of the law, lending strong support to the chairman and chief executive who can lead rather lonely lives and often regard the company secretary as a confidant and value his or her advice.

It can be the route to higher office. Bob Ayling, chief executive of British Airways, was previously the company's secretary, a role now filled by Gail Redwood, wife of John Redwood MP. Lord Sheppard, former chairman of Grand Metropolitan, trained as a chartered secretary (among several professional qualifications).

Peter Hammonds, company secretary at NatWest Group, has a positive view of today's role of the professional Chartered Secretary. "We continually look for better ways of doing things - we are `can-do' people. We don't just advise, we make it our business to go out there, roll up our sleeves, get our hands dirty and make things happen. We are trained to do this and we have the connections within and outside our organisation to achieve this."

Today, company secretaries have to be highly organised, technically able to provide solutions to a wide range of problems, good administrators with the confidence to steer the board. Women and men genuinely compete on equal terms and this is reflected in who wins the senior appointment.

The main (but by no means only) qualification for company secretaries is the training and examinations of the Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators. To become company secretary of a Stock-Exchange-listed company, a graduate would have to take eight professional (Icsa) exams possibly over a period of three to four years and train on the job for another three years. But thereafter, prospects are bright.

The attraction of six-figure salaries at the top of the profession is one thing, but they have to be earned. Core duties include supporting directors at their meetings, ensuring company-law, stock-exchange and corporate-governance compliance are implemented, and dealing positively with all shareholder issues. Increasingly, additional duties include - or might well include if the opportunity is seized - legal issues, property and premises; personnel; and head office facilities management. And there are unofficial duties, such as confidant to the individual directors, counsellor and general sounding board for senior management.

A bonus is that the skills set of a company secretary transfers well between public and private sectors, across different industry groups and there is a high degree of mobility of employment.

One example of this mobility can be seen in the new breed of company secretaries who specialise in filling assignments on an interim basis when the incumbent unexpectedly leaves or is absent on long sick leave, or new projects call for experienced assistance.

For company secretaries and aspiring company secretaries who combine technical knowledge with personal qualities, such as initiative and strong skills, there, is a wealth of opportunity in today's constantly changing new business world. Companies are always looking for potential top-calibre management skills and the Company Secretary's position, so close to the Board, is an ideal launch pad.

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