View from City Road: Barclays chief serves up fudge

FUDGE is no way to run any company, let alone a clearing bank. Yet this is what Andrew Buxton is doing at Barclays Bank.

Having previously promised to split the jobs of chairman and chief executive, he now says there may be no chief executive after all. Instead, there might be a chief operating officer.

The difference might sound small but it could be significant. What would the chief operating officer's job be? Would he be responsible for running the existing company? What about strategy? Would that be Mr Buxton's job? Who should take the blame if an acquisition went wrong?

It is the job of non-executive directors, including Lord Lawson, Sir Derek Birkin of RTZ, Sir Denys Henderson of ICI and Sir Nigel Mobbs of Slough Estates, to give answers to these questions.

Large shareholders can hardly complain about the fudge. If they were not so ambivalent about the chairman/chief executive split in general, the issue would never have arisen at Barclays. Mr Buxton would have had to choose between the top jobs at the outset.

Fund managers point out, rightly, that Marks & Spencer and Guinness have been both successful and run by a single boss. Put another way, none of them has been prepared to sell shares in M&S or Guinness because Sir Richard Greenbury and Tony Greener combine the top jobs.

They are not, however, happy about the dual role in companies that have just announced huge losses, cut their dividend or revealed a stunning lack of risk controls - all of which they have seen at Barclays.

In the absence of a blanket ban - Cadbury backed away from one - shareholders have to make up their minds about each case on its merits. Few are concerned about Martin Taylor combining the top jobs at Courtaulds. But they are less sanguine about Stephen Walls taking over at Albert Fisher - he has no plans to take on a chief executive or managing director for another 18 months - and Rocco Forte, who, as well as taking the top jobs at the hotels company, is doing away with the divisional offices, so gathering more power to head office. Each day brings new dual appointments. Yesterday, Michael Doherty added the chairman's role to that of chief executive at Norcros.

At least investors will know who to blame at Guinness, M&S, Courtaulds, Fisher, Forte and Norcros if things go wrong. They cannot say the same about Barclays.

(Photograph omitted)