11/06/2008 - 22:00

Boardroom battles show character

11/06/2008 - 22:00


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It's often said that true character is revealed in times of adversity, and in the past 18 months Perth has witnessed two enormous boardroom battles that have shone a revealing light on some of the state's most prominent company directors.

Boardroom battles show character

It's often said that true character is revealed in times of adversity, and in the past 18 months Perth has witnessed two enormous boardroom battles that have shone a revealing light on some of the state's most prominent company directors.

Last year it was the battle over Alinta, triggered by the ill-fated management buy-out proposal.

This year it was the battle over West Australian Newspapers Holdings, which pitted Kerry Stokes, a maverick with very deep pockets, against the incumbent chairman Peter Mansell.

Behind these two men was an impressive array of talent on both sides.

The WAN board is a home for blue-chip establishment figures.

Mr Mansell, who was previously managing partner of Perth's largest law firm, Freehills, was preceded as chairman by former BankWest managing director Warwick Kent, and before him it was former Wesfarmers chief executive and current Wesfarmers chairman, Trevor Eastwood.

Mr Mansell is one of WA's most prolific directors - he is chairman of five companies, including national mining group Zinifex, and a director of two.

In recent years he has been a director of four public companies that have been taken over, so the WAN board fight had a very different outcome.

Mr Mansell's board colleagues at WAN include former Wesfarmers executive Erich Fraunschiel, who is arguably the best qualified director in Perth never to become a company chairman.

His board roles include being a director of Woodside Petroleum and engineering group WorleyParsons.

Also on the WAN board is Jenny Seabrook, who is taking on more directorships after scaling back her executive duties at corporate advisory firm Gresham.

She serves on the Western Power board with Mr Mansell and this year has joined three boards, including MG Kailis Holdings.

Mr Mansell was very measured and methodical in his handling of the boardroom challenge, in contrast to the rhetorical flourishes that characterised Mr Stokes campaign for a board seat.

Mr Mansell and his fellow directors fended off the challenge by Mr Stokes and his long-serving lieutenant Peter Gammell, but it remains to be seen if the incumbents have won the war.

Mr Stokes has assembled a powerful group of advisers and executives at his private company Australian Capital Equity.

His big recruit this year was Chamber of Commerce and Industry WA boss and former under-treasurer John Langoulant, who serves as ACE chief executive.

Mr Stokes team also includes former federal government minister and Macquarie Bank director Warwick Smith, who serves as chairman of ACE's advisory board.

Former premier Richard Court also works for Mr Stokes as a consultant.

If the battle over control of WA Newspapers' board can be viewed as a bruising affair, the Alinta controversy could be characterised as traumatic.

The judgement of all of the main players was questioned and they have since kept a relatively low profile.

Former Alinta chairman John Poynton continues as investment bank Azure Capital's executive chairman and has retained his long-term position as a director at ship builder Austal.

His career took a different tack last October when then federal education minister, Julie Bishop, appointed him to the advisory board of the $6 billion Higher Education Endowment Fund. That body is being restructured by the new federal government.

Former Alinta managing director Bob Browning has taken an executive role with Austal in the US.

John Akehurst, who took control of the Alinta board after the controversy arose and oversaw the subsequent sale and break-up of the company, retains a handful of board positions, including at international drug company CSL and Coogee Resources.

Three of Perth's most prominent company directors have taken additional board roles in the past year.

Tony Howarth, who previously had a very successful stint as Alinta chairman, has joined the boards of Wesfarmers and Bank of Queensland, the latter after it bought Home Building Society.

Neil Hamilton has continued his comeback after his horror year in 2004, when he was chairman of Western Power during the infamous power cuts, and of gold miner Sons of Gwalia when it went into administration.

In the past year he has become chairman of two Perth-based mining companies, Mount Gibson Iron and Northern Iron, and joined the board of national grocery wholesaler Metcash.

He continues as chairman of the AFL Players Association and of IRESS Market Technology and as a director of two other national companies.

Another busy director is former Macquarie Bank executive David Griffiths. He has been appointed deputy chairman of Automotive Holdings Group, adding to his other roles which include chairing the boards of Great Southern and ARC Energy.

In the resources sector, one of the most prolific company directors is David Humann.

He is chairman of five listed companies, including nickel miner Mincor Resources, Matrix Metals and Braemore Resources plc, and is a non-executive director of a further four listed companies.

The latter group includes three companies linked to mining promoter Michael Kiernan, including Territory Resources and Monarch Gold Mining.

In addition, Mr Humann sits on the board of several unlisted companies, including being chairman of process technology company Atomaer Holdings, and a director of agribusiness manager Rewards Group and mineral sands miner Exxaro Australian Sands (formerly Ticor).

Another active director in the resources sector is Ian Burston, who is chairman of Cape Lambert Iron Ore, mining contractor NRW Holdings, and driIling contractor Imdex.

Michael Chaney is not a prolific director but is arguably the most powerful company director based in Perth. Lauded for his achievements as managing director of Wesfarmers, Mr Chaney has become non-executive chairman of two of Australia's top 20 listed companies.

There are no other company directors in WA, and very few people nationally, who can make that claim.

Mr Chaney is chairman of Woodside Petroleum, the state's largest listed company by market value and one of the most active in terms of new project investments.

He is also chairman of National Australia Bank and continues as chancellor of the University of Western Australia.

His public profile has dropped appreciably this year, since he stepped down as President of the Business Council of Australia, but that in no way diminishes his reputation as one of the country's eminent business leaders.


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