FDs are in the danger zone.

Recent weeks have seen high-profile FDs dropping like flies, suggesting that the FD’s role is now just as perilous as that of a mercurial chief executive. The list of casualties is enough to make the career-minded business accountant think about downsizing to an asparagus farm in Devon.

Most notable was the resignation of Judy Boynton, group chief financial officer at Shell. She fell on her sword after a damning report was published into why the company had been forced into the embarrassing position of restating its oil and gas reserves.

The consultant brought in to compile the report revealed the cringe-making details of Boynton’s work, concluding that she took ‘virtually no action’ to examine the methodology for booking reserves at Shell.

Positions like Boynton’s are tough when regulators and shareholders are crawling all over the books asking what went wrong.

But Boynton is not the only accountant to demonstrate that life as an FD is not so much a bed of roses as a poisoned chalice. Her resignation followed just days after that of Roger Burge, FD at Eurotunnel.

French investors had already voted out the majority of the company’s board leaving the beleaguered FD the lone British representative when a new all-French set of executives came in. Burge met them and promptly decided to bid adieu too. It came as one of many installments in the controversy surrounding Eurotunnel – but national newspapers noted Burge’s departure as a particular blow.

One of the most interesting of the recent spate of resignations, however, must be that of Felix Weber. The Swiss CFO at international employment agency Adecco was forced to resign after the emergence of ‘possible accounting, control and compliance issues’. Irregularities at the company have delayed publication of Adecco’s 2003 accounts which are still being audited by Ernst & Young.

The cases of Weber, Burge and Boynton all indicate there are a host of things that can go wrong at the financial helm. Certainly there are added responsibilities in the modern corporate world. While FDs have always been just one of two board positions with oversight of the whole company, Sarbanes-Oxley has added further responsibility by making the FD sign off the accounts with the CEO.

Charles Tilley, chief executive at CIMA and himself a former FD, says the role is still an attractive one. He questions whether more FDs are being forced to resign today, but adds that the job remains ‘challenging’.

‘If you’re in the FTSE100 you are charged with responsibility for the financial affairs of huge organisations. You are well rewarded but you have huge responsibility,’ Tilley says.

Certainly the corporate zeitgeist seems to have changed in recent times.

Enron and WorldCom have made investors, whether institutional or small shareholders, more conscious than ever of a board’s responsibility to represent the true nature of a company’s finances, and the board member with most responsibility is the FD.

Indeed investor activism, at all levels, seems on the up. Institutions appear more willing to intervene publicly and privately. Our reliance on pensions invested in the stock markets has heightened our expectations of the people who run the company and manage the numbers. The pressures are certainly on.

But the pay cheque could be the thing that keeps accountants applying for the FD job. A survey by Financial Director, Accountancy Age’s sister publication, showed that the UK’s highest paid FD, Peter Clarke of the Man Group, bagged just over £2m last year. Wages like that might just be enough to encourage accountants to keep making the applications.

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