The corridors of power …

Rowland came to mind during the recent brouhaha over non-executive directors – an event that had legions of PR types climbing over one another in their haste to get their view in the papers.

Through it all, I heard Rowland’s ghost muttering – as indeed he once did – about non-executives being about as much use as decorations on a Christmas tree.

That was certainly the case at Lonrho, which was the ultimate corporate fiefdom before Dieter Bock came along to spoil the party.

It will be interesting to see whether this brave new boardroom world makes any difference. It is a fact that successful companies tend to be steered by domineering personalities. Robert Maxwell is the classic example – and can you imagine any non-executives standing up to him?

But what about the rest? Lord Hanson would not have tolerated dissent in his boardroom. It is hard to imagine Lord Weinstock welcoming an outsider into his office.

Shareholders are happy enough as long as they are making money – which is how Polly Peck, with its blatant abuse of boardroom power, could still be voted ‘Share of the Year’ back in 1989, shortly before it went bust.

The new order could usher in an era of bland conformity.

But they still have to find the non-execs to make it work. Hanson Green, a London headhunting firm, says nine out of ten non-exec positions are filled by word-of-mouth. As long as the old-boy club continues to thrive, latter-day Tiny Rowlands can hang on to their Christmas baubles.

  • Jon Ashworth is business features editor at The Times.

Related reading