Rosemary Thorne: Business is pleasure

Mingling with the likes of the Eminem is not quite what one would expect of a leading UK finance director. But then again, the group FD of FTSE-100 finance and property giant Bradford & Bingley is not altogether your typical FD.

Firstly Rosemary Thorne, if the name hasn’t given it away, is female – one of the few female FDs in the FTSE-100. She is also approachable, self-effacing, and a little self-doubting for a woman who has a string of qualifications and experience.

Unlike most of her peers, Thorne does not feel the need to draw a clear line between her work and social life. For her, the two are naturally intertwined. She loves her job and enjoys talking about it whether that be in a social or work environment.

That said, she is not so committed to her career so as not to allow herself time to relax once in a while.

Meeting at her new offices near Russell Square – and ‘no the company has no plans to move its headquarters out of Yorkshire despite media reports’, she assures, – Thorne is freshly tanned after a Christmas break in Barbados.

It was here she happened upon rapper Eminem, and while mixing with former footballer and now TV presenter Gary Lineker among other celebrities, she spent time discussing the pros and cons of international accounting standards with US and UK business leaders over a drink at the beach bar.

‘A lot of my close friends are financial people,’ she explains. ‘It’s due to my job. I can’t separate the two. And anyway, I don’t mind discussing work in my free time.’

Thorne, 50, is one of the few high-profile females in the FTSE-100. Her influence is far-reaching despite her concerns that it could be on the wane due to her age.

In a world where men seem to bloom with age – gaining wisdom and respect – it is clear Thorne is concerned about her position, despite friends and colleagues’ outright dismissal of such worries.

But if her CV is anything to go by, she will overcome these fears. It has never stood in her way in the past.

On leaving university in 1974 she had an interview at the London Stock Exchange. ‘It took them 20 minutes to find the ladies’ loo,’ she says.

‘I thought: “I don’t want to work here”.’

And now? ‘Oh yes, they know where the ladies’ are when I go for a meeting there now,’ she quips.

When she first began considering her career plan, Thorne looked at what was then the Big Eight accountancy firms. ‘I surveyed them in the university library – there was no internet to look at – and found out there were no female partners. I went to a couple of firms and decided I fancied going through the industry route. Hence the reason why I am a chartered management accountant.’

Despite her decision to study for the CIMA qualification, she says there is little difference between chartered and chartered management career paths. ‘There’s not a lot of difference between the two and, as you can see from my CV, I’m still actively involved with the technical side. I think my expertise is no different here,’ she explains.

‘And if you look at the top 100 FDs, there’s a real mixture,’ she adds.

‘They all used to be chartered accountants of the ICAEW. Now there’s a mixture and many don’t have an accountancy qualification.’

That said, she’s told change is afoot in this area. ‘Experts and headhunters say there’s actually a lot more flight to quality. When they’re looking to change their FDs, they want people who have accounting qualifications.

‘I guess that’s due to Enronitis and corporate governance,’ says Thorne.

Indeed, her biggest annoyance at present is the continuing blame heaped upon the accountancy industry for corporate failures and associated scandals.

She is, of course, biased.

‘I get fed up with accountants being blamed for everything. It wasn’t just accountants causing problems in the US, but the bankers, the lawyers, and everyone else.’

On that note, Thorne has been heavily involved in the recently unveiled review of the role and responsibilities of non-executives.

Having worked closely at Sainsbury’s with Derek Higgs, who was charged with looking at the state of UK non-execs, Thorne was selected as one of the people Higgs interviewed for his research.

Thorne wholeheartedly agrees with Higgs’ direction. ‘I can tell you that as a director, there is nothing more frustrating than going to a board meeting where people ask you questions and you know they haven’t read the papers. All you want to say is: “If you’d read page three then you’d know the answer”.

‘So I think you need non-execs to make a commitment. Many don’t do that, many stretch themselves too far,’ she says.

Despite her support for tightening the rules on non-execs, she does foresee some problems. ‘The concern is going to be whether people are willing to take it forward – the commitment/reward ratio. Some companies will realise it is hard to find people who are willing to play that role. People will say it’s not worth the hassle’.

Nevertheless, she encourages all executives, company policy permitting, to take on at least one non-exec role ‘because in my experience, it teaches you a lot and helps you do your day job’.

She is equally candid in her views on what should change within the audit and accounting sphere. ‘We have to be realistic, have common sense and not go over the top. We must remember that we haven’t had the problems that they had in the States. The controls we’ve had in place seem to work.

We mustn’t over-react.’

To reinforce her point, she adds: ‘Rotating auditors or changing audit partner every three years is not going to solve the problems they had at Enron, or WorldCom. The same things would have happened, because there was still fraud on behalf of the executive.’

For a woman who considered a career in academia, she has made it her business to be entrenched in every aspect of business, above and beyond her duties at Bradford & Bingley. Academia’s loss is clearly business’ gain. Unapologetic for her taste for all things commercial, she shunned what would have undoubtedly been a successful academic career for ‘the real world’.

Her expertise will be put to the test once again as the economic slowdown prevails. Thorne is not blinkered about the coming year, but remains sure in her belief in Bradford & Bingley to pull through without too much trauma.

‘It will be tough, but I think we’ll get through it. We’re not solely reliant on our products. We sell other people’s financial products too.

It’s a bit like a financial supermarket.

‘We have to keep our heads down and do our best. And as FD, I have to keep control of the costs and worry about capital management as well’.

On top of the company concerns, Thorne also has to concentrate on preparation for international standards, FSA compliance and making the FRRP more proactive.

She is in favour of being proactive but she has concerns. ‘Who is going to pay for it?’ she asks. ‘Well more than 100 accountants work in a proactive role at the SEC and they didn’t spot what was going on in Enron or WorldCom,’ she says.

‘It’s very hard to picture how proactivity would work without it costing a fortune,’ says Thorne.

Still, for the time being there are more pressing issues. As a member of the 100-Group of FDs she is concentrating on the share options issue.

While backing Sir David Tweedie’s quest to expense share options through the p&l account, there is one point that worries her.

‘It’s with some of the all share schemes that I have problems,’ she says.v ‘But we’ll be commenting on that in due course.’

Perhaps the man renowned for his keenness to ‘cross a motorway for a fight’, has met his match. And that’s Tweedie not Eminem.

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