In profile: Ric Piper, ex-FD at WS Atkins

The relationship was over before it had even began. Last week – less than 24 hours before he was due to get his feet under the desk – Trinity Mirror announced that Ric Piper would not after all be joining the newspaper giant as finance director.

No explanation was offered in the board’s brief (and somewhat terse) statement. But given Piper’s background – he was FD at WS Atkins – it was immediately clear that the chartered accountant was another victim of the ongoing controversy surrounding the private finance initiative.

It was back in June that Trinity announced Piper would be joining to succeed Margaret Ewing. Somewhat ironically, Ewing left the group to join BAA – formerly the government-owned British Airports Authority and a success story of the 1980s’ privatisation programme, a programme that perhaps paved the way for the PFI.

Since June the controversy surrounding the PFI – the preferred solution of successive governments in search of public sector investment since the early 1990s – has grown. And like other PFI specialists that controversy has taken its toll on WS Atkins.

For Piper himself, it all started to unravel last Tuesday when – just hours before WS Atkins agm was due to take place in leafy Surrey – Atkins issued a profit warning and saw its share price slide 72%. As had long been planned, Piper stood down after the meeting paving the way for his move to join Trinity Mirror.

But after a conversation between Piper and Trinity Mirror chairman Philip Graf that same afternoon, a statement from the newspaper giant on Wednesday morning confirmed Piper would not be now joining ‘by mutual consent’.

Instead, the company said, Vijay Vaghela, director of accounting and treasury, would continue to oversee the accounting, finance and treasury functions ‘pending the appointment of a new finance director’.

Piper, still only in his late 40s, had been FD at WS Atkins since 1993.

By then, having qualified with Deloitte Haskin & Sells, his career had already taken him to a number of illustrious corporates – ICI, Citicorp and Logica.

But Piper is not the only casualty. Graf himself is to leave Trinity Mirror next summer (the company board is currently trying to identify a ‘suitable successor from both internal and external candidates’).

Meanwhile last week’s profits warning also cost WS Atkins’ chief executive Robin Southwell his job. He stood down at the agm with immediate effect.

Unfortunately for Piper, there is no way back. Stephen Billingham (who, for the last nine months, has been on full-time secondment at Metronet, the consortium that is the preferred supplier for the London Underground’s public private partnership) took over as WS Atkins’ FD after the agm.

So for now the married father of two has to content himself with a non-executive directorship at Synstar and membership of the Accounting Standards Board’s Urgent Issue Task Force. A rumoured £300,000 compensation package may sweeten the pill.

But you can’t help but get the sense that PFI controversies have not yet run their course.

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