The departure of Grant King from the BHP Billiton board last year was a pivotal moment for director accountability in Australia. It also set a new benchmark which will be hard to follow.
The former Origin Energy CEO faced a coordinated push by institutional investors and the proxy advisory firm Ownership Matters, concerned by the LNG write-offs at Origin and ill-disciplined debt-funded capital allocation decisions. King spent 16 years as Origin CEO and did a good job for most of that time, so much so that he was deemed suitable in November 2016 to replace Catherine Livingstone as President of the Business Council of Australia.
He was then parachuted onto the BHP Billiton board in February last year as something of a captain’s pick by outgoing chairman Jac Nasser.
Alas, investors weren’t impressed as the write-offs at Origin continued to flow and the share price under-performed. Incoming BHP chairman Ken MacKenzie faced the prospect of defending King against a candidate put up by offshore activist fund Elliott. It could have been a close run thing, so King instead exited ignominiously, sparking a flood of media coverage.
While investors were right to be concerned about write-downs at Origin, director accountability standards in Australia are thoroughly inconsistent. Fellow BHP director and current Transurban and Westpac chairman Lindsay Maxsted was most unimpressed that King was hounded off the BHP board. Maxsted told The Constant Investor last year “that was one of the saddest things that I’ve seen in my corporate career … he would have been a great long-term director for BHP”.
Lo and behold, since then the oil price has recovered strongly and Origin’s share price has rebounded from its 2016 low of $4 to recently hit a three-year high of $10, putting the company back in the top 20 with a market capitalisation of $17.5 billion. Perhaps he should be reinstated to the BHP board.
And if Grant King was ousted from BHP for his performance at Origin, shouldn’t the same thing happen to chairman Gordon Cairns, who is up for re-election at the Macquarie Group AGM on July 26?
Cairns served alongside Grant King on the Origin board since 2007 and was elevated to chair in 2013. Remarkably, he was re-elected as Origin chair in 2016 with almost 99% in favour.
When I asked Cairns about this inconsistent Origin position during an interview last year, he explained it as follows:
I went to see the institutions, they made it very clear to me that they were hugely disappointed in the performance of the board and in the performance of me as a chairman. I can also tell you that I said to them, ‘Look, if it would be appropriate I am happy to resign, because I believe that there is accountability.’ Their feedback to me was, ‘Look, what we’d like you to do is, rather than resign, we’d like you to stay and fix it.’ And that’s what I’ve been attempting to do.
Neither Cairns nor King should be hounded out of the club. Indeed, there are stronger scoreboard arguments against plenty of other prominent directors around town, such as former ABC Learning chairman David Ryan who recently joined the GetSwift board.
We need greater boardroom accountability in Australia, particularly given the community-wide exposures to the performance of public company directors driven by our uniquely paternalistic compulsory superannuation system.
It was great to see two AMP directors actually voted off the board earlier this year, but when targeting poorly performing directors for their record at unrelated companies, let’s at least be a little bit consistent. Grant King is a class act who was unfairly picked on last year and should be welcomed into other public company boardrooms.