19 February 2009

Pop quiz: when did I write this editorial?

A week before we went to press, National Express fired its finance director. As I’ve said before, it seems that a lot of FDs have left their jobs recently in “unfortunate” circumstances, seldom of their own doing.

In this case, FD William Rollason had been filling in as chief exec while CEO Phil White was on protracted sick leave. When White came back, Rollason left. “We need a more operational, hands-on, finance director rather than somebody who has a particular strength in the corporate finance area,” said the CEO.

Am I missing something? An FD who’s been with the company three years steps up to the top job. He sheds the old “bean-counter” image. And he does very well, thank-you very much, as chief executive for months. Then he’s dropped because he’s too versatile?!

I’ve really had it with defensive executives who can’t handle the modern financial manager. Don’t they get it? Once more, with feeling: the FD is one of the few people who can tell you hard facts about what is happening across every facet of the business. A good one, with strategic vision as well as the ability to report on the business and control costs, is worth their weight in gold. And they’re worth a lot more than White’s throwaway quip about his long-term illness: “The doctor said it was an aversion to finance directors.” Ha. Ha.

I’ll concede one point to White. We mustn’t forget to be prudent this year. That’s something the British population at large seems to have forgotten in [LAST YEAR]. Despite all the warnings, last year we borrowed £40bn against our homes and spent it on widescreen TVs and other luxury goods.

I’ve nothing against borrowing against your assets per se. Most FDs, even in this downturn, will be able to find projects that deliver returns above the cost of capital, especially with interest rates so low.

But how many of you would borrow to the extent that you were increasing profits to the tune of six per cent per year, then blow the dough on non-earning assets? That’s how much the national income increased last year thanks to home equity withdrawal, and much of it has gone to fuel the consumer boom.

While you and your fellow directors have been exhorted to apply the highest standards of corporate governance and look at the social and environmental aspects of your financial decisions, the masses are out their doing an Enron (well, almost). Even if house prices stabilise, the consumer boom is definitely over in [THIS YEAR]. There’s precious little equity left to borrow against; the credit cards are maxed out. It’s going to be a challenging year. So companies will need FDs with the *full* range of skills if they’re to exploit to the expected upturn in the last quarter.


Richard Young said...

Hint: I've been freelance since summer 2006.

Quiz said...

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