Comment: Jobs for the same old boys on the same old boards

Erikka Askeland. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Erikka Askeland. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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THEY are weel-kent faces with safe hands trusted to firmly advise and guide enterprise. But as those same faces crop up again and again at the top companies in the UK, you have to ask the question, are they the only ones out there?

Regard the familiar phizog of Martin Gilbert, who, as well as a busy day job running one of the biggest independent asset managers in Europe – Aberdeen Asset Management (AAM) – has a host of other big roles.

These include being the chairman of bus and train giant FirstGroup, and, for his sins, a director of Aberdeen Football Club.

And let’s not forget his recent appointment as a non-executive director of BSkyB, which is currently at the centre of a storm that is threatening to engulf any number of Westminster front-benchers. No stress there, then.

It is probably no coincidence that, just after he and another non-exec director, Matthieu Pigasse, joined the group’s board, its chairman, James “son of Rupert” Murdoch, was persuaded to step down.

But Gilbert now appears to have attracted flak, with some shareholders at FirstGroup expressing disquiet at his role as chairman.

Sure, things are running smoothly at AAM, but FirstGroup’s share price is down by about 30 per cent this year.

Not only this, but Gilbert has been there in the chairman’s seat since the days when First was just a twinkling former regional bus service in its founder Sir Moir Lockhead’s eye.

But it is not just Gilbert. Surely the UK government could have looked further than prime-time television to find a chairman for the newly launched StartUp Loans board? But no, we have got James “former Dragons’ Den star” Caan.

A buccaneer who made his millions in recruitment, there’s no doubting his credentials.

But there are plenty of under-employed headhunters floating around these days, giving the impression it was his stint on the telly that got him the job.

Then there is the recent appointment of Lord Smith of Kelvin as chairman of the new UK Green Investment Bank.

There is little doubt the redoubtable former investment banker is suitable for the job, but he also has other things on his plate, namely his chairmanship of Perth-based electricity and gas company SSE, the Glasgow-headquartered Weir Group, and – a job which is only sure to get busier – chairmanship of Glasgow 2014, the Commonwealth Games organising committee.

Yes, these men are all well connected, well known, and can unhesitatingly slap down any daft ideas that might emerge from fellow board members.

But it is hard not to think that the Equality and Human Rights Commission has a point when it says that handing these type of jobs to – gasp – a woman doesn’t happen often enough, mainly because her background or her face wouldn’t “fit”.

The commission, which got the Cranfield Business School to do a study, found that at the final stage, boards all too often tend to overlook everyone else and just hire the guy that allows them to “replicate” themselves.

Familiar though their faces may be, perhaps it is time to see some new ones emerge.

Waking up just a little bit richer today… or not

ARE you feeling a bit richer today? According to those great minds of the 18th century, the Adam Smith Institute, today is Tax Freedom Day. This is the day when the average UK citizen will finally have earned enough to pay their taxes and start working for themselves.

It’s a bit of a nonsense, of course, because the tax continues to come out of your pay packet no matter what day of the year it is. But as a measure of “tax creep”, it is simple to grasp, if a bit depressing.

The chaps at Adam Smith say Tax Freedom Day is getting later. It’s now five days later than in 2010, a week later than in 2002 and nearly five weeks later than in 1963 when Tax Freedom Day fell on 24 April.

Interestingly, Michael McCusker, a tax partner at PwC in Scotland, says that, while the Americans seem to have it better – their Tax Freedom Day was last month on 17 April – the Yanks still pay more in taxes in 2012 than they will spend on groceries, clothing and shelter combined.