Overview – From Bard to verse

Sir Christopher Bland is a man reputed to love his Shakespeare, as his appointment to the chairmanship of the RSC demonstrates. But he’s clearly not a man to engage in Hamlet-style indecision and hand wringing.

Indeed, recent events saw Sir Christopher launch an indirect soliloquy of criticism at US regulators for the cost of complying with Sarbanes-Oxley. His comments have, in fact, crystalised and expressed what many a chairman of US-listed company must be thinking – is this really worth the money?

Sir Christopher’s remarks were to-the-point. Compliance with Sarbox is costing BT Group £10m a year. He was reported in the press as saying ‘they just gone too far’. It was money ‘not well spent’.

Having let his feelings be known about US legislators, they were promptly followed by CBI chairman Digby Jones who revealed to Accountancy Age that he believed 10 to 20 UK plcs were considering backing away from their US listing.

Regulators in the US are unlikely to listen to Jones – but may well pay attention to the chairman of a big plc. If he thinks things are bad he may well persuade others they need to bail out.

Sir Christopher has been with the BT board since May 2001 when he made chairman. He has also enjoyed a five-year spell as chairman of the BBC board of governors. In fact, he has made a career of chairing boards including posts with LWT, Sir Joseph Causton and Sons, NFC and Hammersmith hospital special health authority. He was knighted for services to the NHS in 1995.

A man with that much board experience is clearly not afraid of confrontation, and his remarks may well be timed to support Sir Bryan Nicholson of the Financial Reporting Council, as he negotiates with US regulators to recognise upcoming changes to UK rules as equivalent to Sarbox. That, Sir Bryan believes, will save dual-listed companies a lot of cash.

Meanwhile, Sir Christopher has other battles to fight. BT is under pressure from the regulator Ofcom to allow rivals onto its networks to improve competition. The big stick being waved at Sir Christopher and his board is that, if they don’t budge, the Competition Commission could become involved which could, eventually, lead to the break-up of the group.

Sir Christopher appears to have wasted no time in letting his feelings be known about this – and he is not happy.

But for finance chiefs across the markets concerned about the cost of meeting the demands of Sarbox, Sir Christopher has already dealt a blow. By standing up and being counted, he puts down a marker that should be seen by both the US regulators and those running US markets.

Whether they respond or not is another matter, but they now know that there is a serious problem. Place Sir Christopher in the vanguard if you like, but he’s certainly sent a message across the Atlantic.

Related reading