The AFR’s Boss Magazine led with BHP chairman Don Argus headlining Australia’s corporate board “Dreamteam”. In naming Don Argus chairman of the fictitious corporate board, AFR noted that “the choice of chairman was obvious but the other nine directors on this widely canvassed lineup for Australia’s best board include a maverick or two.” Obvious choice? Not really. Here’s our arguments against the man dubbed “Don’t Argue” for the Chairman’s role.

While Argus enjoyed a stellar career as CEO of NAB during the 1990s, his career as a director has been mixed. While the AFR was quick to give Argus credit for the “turnaround” at BHP, in judging the performance of a chairman it is necessary to assess performance in terms of what the board actually has control over – the hiring and firing CEOs and approving large transactions.

In both those respects, Argus’ performance at BHP has been mixed. Shortly after assuming the BHP chair, Argus championed and negotiated a merger with Anglo-African miner Billiton. As Alan Kohler originally noted, while BHP is a far larger company since the merger, BHP shareholders are actually worse off because of BHP being far too generous to Billiton in the merger terms. According to Crikey’s calculations, BHP shareholders were around $40 billion worse off as a result of the merger.

Argus then hired Billiton CEO Brian Gilbertson to run the new entity – only to fire the South African after he secretly tried to negotiate a takeover of Rio. Gilbertson was paid $50 million and sacked. Four years later, Argus’ BHP is trying to purchase Rio for what will probably be $100 billion more than what Gilbertson would have paid for it.

While BHP’s share price performance has been superb, the performance of Argus as chairman couldn’t be described as outstanding.

Argus’ other role is chairman of dual-listed industrial company Brambles. Back in 2001, the Argus-led Brambles board agreed to merge with joint venture partner, European company GKN. As with BHP, Argus continued to preside over the the dual-listed structure and hired GKN boss, Sir CK Chow, to be CEO of the new entity.

The Chow period was an unmitigated disaster, with the company losing hundreds of millions after it lost fifteen million CHEP pallets. According to the Australian Shareholders Association, during his time as CEO, Chow was paid lucrative performance bonuses, despite “not achieving a single strategic or financial objective.” As chairman, the hiring and remuneration of Chow was ultimately Argus’ responsibility.

As chairman of BHP and Brambles, Argus oversaw two company-altering mergers, neither of which financially benefited the shareholders of the companies. On both occasions, Argus hired and then fired the CEO of the new entity and on both occasions paid the CEO a large severance (using shareholders money of course). On those grounds, it seems difficult to anoint Argus Australia’s most successful chairman.

Who would our choice for Chairman be? Possibly by virtue of longevity and success, it is difficult to look past Charlie Goode, who has overseen stunning eras at both Woodside Petroleum and ANZ. The AFR got it right with Michael Chaney, a solid choice for “heir apparent”.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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