For someone who was once just 10 votes shy of denying Tony Abbott a seat in federal parliament, Kevin “Harry” McCann is a difficult man to pin down.

In the corporate world he’s been omnipotent for decades — lately as chair of Macquarie Bank and Origin Energy, as a director at BlueScope and a fierce advocate for the rights of women and the smashing of the directors’ club. But despite numerous calls and emails, The Power Index couldn’t raise the lawyerly phenom (who to be fair has been off sick), even for a quick chat.

McCann was certainly no hermit during the 1994 preselection battle for the safe Liberal seat of Warringah where, as former state party president, he was odds-on favourite to walk away with the glittering prize of a spot on the green leather.

His main competition wasn’t even Abbott — who copped a cruel but accurate write-off of “monarchist” on the candidates list — but Malcolm Turnbull’s Wentworth predecessor Peter King. History records that Abbott, after an impressive address to the party faithful, walked away with a tight 65-55 victory against McCann in the run-off. Abbott joined John Hewson on the opposition benches while his sparring partner copped it sweet and returned to the corner office.

For 34 years, McCann was a driving force in mergers and acquisitions at Allens Arthur Robinson (and its predecessor Allen Allen & Hemsley), making partner at age 29 and becoming chairman the year after his failed Tory tilt in 1995.

Name nearly any sector of the Australian economy and governance and he’s touched it — whether as a Fellow of Senate of the University of Sydney, on the Takeovers Panel, at ING, at Healthcope, at Ampol, or on peak bodies like the European Australian Business Council.

Numerous associates contacted by The Power Index all said the same thing: McCann’s subtle power is drawn from a focused but inclusive approach — an uncanny ability to prosecute tasks while keeping fellow directors onside. The fact boards had first seen him in action executing their deals as a lawyer probably served as a sweet introduction.

The Australian Shareholders’ Association continues to rate the 71-year-old highly, citing his billion-dollar profit years at millionaire’s factory Macquarie Bank when he acted as the late David Clarke’s deputy chair and chief enforcer.

Leading ASX director and friend Kathleen Conlon collaborated closely with McCann during his stint on the Australian Institute of Company Directors board where he was, until this month, chair of the corporate governance committee. “He’s very effective at driving performance and making sure everyone has the space to contribute … but also keeps focused on the issues,” Conlon told The Power Index.

“Kevin’s very gracious and very charming and makes time for people … he’s thoughtful, not just about protecting directors but also about what the responsibility of directors is.”

But it was his ability to stand up on “moral issues” and governance that placed him head and shoulders above the pack. That streak was on display in February when McCann took aim at the directors’ club as part of his role as a Male Champion of Change, S-x Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick’s all-blokes forum to jack up the percentage of women on corporate boards — currently a piddling 15.2% of the ASX 200.

In an extraordinary intervention, McCann thundered that the members of the club (that must surely include himself) “went to the same schools, they went to the same universities, they married each other’s sisters”. He also said they “holidayed down at Portsea”, suggesting some kind of louche summertime beach o-gy lay at the root of ruling class dominance.

Federal Labor MP Dick Adams, who until recently toiled with McCann on the National Library of Australia council, told The Power Index that while “he took more of a market-driven approach than me”, he was an expert in corralling corporate cash.

He says the library’s impressive new “Treasures Gallery” was mostly thanks to a very fat Rolodex that snaffled an extra $3 million to house artefacts including Captain Cook’s writing desk and Ben Hall’s pistol. “He was able to almost single-handedly get those things done,” an effusive Adams said.

Still, McCann’s recent corporate results have surprised on the downside. Macquarie in particular was smashed by the GFC — if Lehman Brothers had never collapsed he’d rank much higher on both The Power Index top 10 list and the Optimice Market Capitalisation Influence Index (131st and 242nd on the MCII connectedness table; see graphic below).

Origin shares are tracking south, falling 38% to a four-year low. As Adam Schwab noted in Crikey, excuses at board level are running thin: “A good profit performance at Origin is caused by their talented executives like [CEO Grant] King, but bad performance is the fault of anonymous regulators. In both cases, shareholders suffer.”

The ASA say the outlook is also grim at BlueScope Steel, which lost $2 billion over two years and cut 1500 jobs as part of a wholesale restructure. And at the silver doughnut — from which the 71-year-old drew a cool $825,000 in board fees last year — the leveraged gold rush of the mid-naughties is unlikely to return. McCann, a 16-year Mac Bank veteran, will almost certainly step aside as chair when his term concludes in 2014. Amid a glittering career the next two years could well sound a sour footnote.

It could have turned out differently — a more rousing preselection speech and McCann might well have been facing off across the dispatch box against Nicola Roxon as shadow attorney-general. And as an MP, The Power Index would have been able to get him on the line more easily.

But politics’ gain would have been corporate Australia’s loss.

Kevin McCann directorships:

  • Corporate: Origin Energy (chair), Macquarie Group (chair), Macquarie Bank (chair), BlueScope Steel, European Australian Business Council
  • Not-for-profit/government: National Library of Australia Foundation, Fellow of the Senate of the University of Sydney, Male Champions of Change

Kevin McCann ASX connections — click to enlarge