Greenbury’s Damascene conversion

March 31, 2009

— Neil Collins is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own —

REUTERSSir Richard Greenbury has had a Damascene conversion. The former boss of Marks & Spencer tells The Times that he’s now in favour of continental-style two-tier boards, contrary to his own report into corporate governance 14 years ago.

The old bruiser thinks this would have prevented the emergence of the likes of Sir Fred Goodwin, the reviled former boss of Royal Bank of Scotland whose non-executive directors were too weak to question his o’ervaulting ambition.

Coming from him, this is rich indeed. When he was both chairman and chief executive of M&S, there was never the slightest doubt about who was calling the shots. No detail was too trivial for the great man to impose his view.

This style of management drove profits up, for a time, but he pushed up prices until the customers deserted and when the margins could not be stretched any further, the company’s fall from its pedestal was spectacular.

He was forced out by the major shareholders, exposing the lack of any succession planning. It was only the threat of a bid from Philip Green that pushed the board into asking the obvious outside candidate, Stuart Rose, to become chief executive.

The Greenbury Report was, of course, commissioned in response to a public outcry over corporate greed. The numbers look positively parsimonious compared to today’s, but plus ca change…

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