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White men grab the chairs

18 March 2017

11:00 AM

18 March 2017

11:00 AM

Tesco chairman John Allan provoked feminist fury by telling would-be non-exec directors, ‘If you’re a white male, tough: you’re an endangered species’ — then claimed he was really trying to make the opposite point, that ‘it’s a great time for women’. But to the contrary, this was a week in which tough white males grabbed the corporate prizes, while one high-flying woman from an oppressed minority was hounded out of her job.

First, the blokes. HSBC announced, for the first time in its history and to the satisfaction of governance zealots, the appointment of an outside chairman. Incumbent Douglas Flint is to be succeeded by Mark Tucker, a former professional footballer who runs Hong Kong-based insurer AIA, sits on the board of Goldman Sachs, and is a former head of Prudential in London and Asia. One associate described him to me as an ‘intense, hard-driving, slightly oddball’ chief executive who may find it hard switching to the more diplomatic mode required, as chairman, to address HSBC’s lingering reputational problems. But being ‘phenomenally well connected’ around Asia, and having served on the Court of the Bank of England, will certainly help.

More testosterone at BT, too: the new chairman of the telecoms group — now wrestling with the separation of its Openreach broadband arm under regulatory orders — is the toughest of current FTSE company commanders, the South African Jan du Plessis. A specialist in what investors call ‘sin stocks’, having formerly led British-American Tobacco and the brewer SAB Miller, du Plessis will step down from the chair of mining giant Rio Tinto — leaving behind the untidiness of ‘Guineagate’ , the scandal in which Rio confessed to bribery in connection with an iron ore concession.

Du Plessis is widely admired for his results-driven, no-nonsense grip: his weak spot is that he can sometimes sound insensitive in matters of corporate responsibility. One example was his recent evidence to a Commons select committee, in which he justified ‘safety bonuses’ for senior Rio executives despite four deaths during the previous year by arguing that ‘an absolute requirement for zero fatalities’ in a dangerous industry would be ‘a trap of political correctness’. That was an even riskier remark than the Tesco chief’s clumsy defence of men.

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