When does a trickle become a stream?

It’s really quite nice when, as a commentator on your chosen area of
specialism, you call something right.

You will, I’m sure, have seen the appointment of David Tyler as the chairman
of J Sainsbury plc (read about
it here
). He’s had a successful career by anyone’s standards.

But why am I so keen to congratulate myself (apart, that is, from the fact
that someone’s got to)? It’s because I wrote at the start of this year, and I’ve
been saying for some time now, that the finance department is a great place to
find chairmen.

And it seems the market has been listening. Tyler and Hampton are in good
company ­ Roger Matthews, Ken Hanna, Sir Mike Rake, Kevin Beeston to name but a

Where once there was a trickle, there is now a stream. We may now even need a
collective noun for FDs-turned-chairmen.

There are a number of potential reasons for the phenomenon.

While business managers didn’t exactly ignore finance; it’s more that they
are currently looking at it more closely than previously.

Banking relationships, credit facilities, cashflow, debt ­ these are more
visible now, and they are all in the remit of finance.

But organisations would be pretty short-sighted if they were to appoint a
chairman whose experience would be relevant for maybe a quarter of the time a
chair would be expected to sit, maybe up to several years.

So I think we can put that one to one side.

What has positioned the FD so strongly? Well, if you think about it, it’s
fairly apparent. The FD is the critical friend, the support, the non-ego driven
confidant that helps the CEO run the business, but is perfectly happy to let the
CEO take the glory. And given the role of CFO has broadened out substantially
over the last few years, taking more accountability for strategy, operational
delivery and commercial management, then the CEO can’t point to that experience
and justify his promotion to chair as the ‘business person’ anymore.

In short, in a straight fight, the CFO is starting to win a number of
competitions for the role.

So, when does a trickle become a stream? I’d have said when we win the
Ashe… oh.

Mark Freebairn is a partner at Odgers Ray & Berndtson

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