In the cut and thrust of executive life, there is a feeling that work-life
balance – like lunch – is for wimps. After years being promoted through the
corporate ranks it takes great bravery, terrible failure, or perhaps even a
heart attack to give up the trappings and rewards of executive directorship. But
Nigel Hall, former group finance director of Burton and Topshop retailer
Arcadia, wasn’t prepared to wait for retirement age or illness before he gave up
the keys to the executive washroom.
In 2002, after nearly 20 years at Arcadia, Hall realised there was more to
life than high street retail, corporate finance and hostile takeovers, and began
to formulate a plan to make his mark in the non-executive arena. “I had become a
bit bored with the executive way of life and had come to realise there is a
whole world of business out there that I hadn’t had the opportunity to
experience. And although there had been board changes at Arcadia the rhythm just
went on,” he says.
Hall’s problem was that while his success at Arcadia meant he could afford to
live in Devon and commute to his London flat to meet the obligations of his
executive day job, his home life was suffering. He wanted to spend less time in
the capital and more time with his family. And, as an operations-focused finance
director who says he “was never just confined to keeping score”, Hall craved the
opportunity to branch out into other businesses and shed the beancounter image
associated with being an FD.
Managing a portfolio of non-executive directorships seemed the way forward.
And as recent corporate governance regulation had created a market for
independent directors – notably the Higgs Report on non-executive directors
which recommended that more than half of a public company’s board should be made
up of independent non-execs – Hall felt the time was right to make his move.
But it wasn’t that easy to make the switch to non-executive life. Hall says
he began to investigate the possibility of becoming involved with local
businesses by “getting my feelers out and getting to know a few people in the
community”, and he had already begun a non-executive directorship in 2002 at
furniture retailer HMTF while he was still at Arcadia. But he soon realised that
as an executive director you tend to become so absorbed in your business that
you neglect to make contacts that might help you make a career switch. “Over the
past couple of years, I’ve had to become much more focused on networking. You
have to learn who it is worth spending time with,” he says.
Ultimately, Hall’s hand was forced by the takeover of Arcadia by retailer
Philip Green in October 2002. Hall agreed to stay on for another year, but after
six months he left after a board reshuffle. But as Hall says, “Everyone who left
the party left with a balloon”, and more than £2m of realised share options must
have made the parting easier for him to bear.
“I’m in a very privileged position and I was very fortunate with what
happened. I’ve never made any bones about it,” he says. “I was already in a
reasonable situation pension-wise and a career change was viable on those terms.
But the company got taken over, which crystallised my share options. Not
everybody is in that position.” Hall considers himself fortunate because,
although fees are improving, it is difficult to make serious money out of
non-executive positions – especially if you are used to executive director
remuneration. It also became apparent very quickly that finding non-executive
positions in the first place was going to be more difficult than the corporate
governance commentators had suggested, so it helped to be financially secure in
the interim. “I don’t think the market is as good as people thought it was going
to be – even though there was a lot of talk about broadening the gene pool for
the non-executive population off the back of what Higgs said was going to
happen,” he says. “But what Higgs was recommending raises real challenges for
“If you argue that most directors on every board should be non-executive,
particularly if you’re a small or medium-size company, what do you do? Do you
want to hire lots of non-executive directors? Is that appropriate? Can you
afford them? Many companies decided they would restrict the number of executives
they had instead,” says Hall.
He also encountered his fair share of the ‘old boy network’ when
non-executive appointments were being made, but he says that with help from five
or six of the best headhunters opportunities do arise, just as long as you are
persistent. “I’ve nearly lost count of the number of times I’ve made contact
with a firm and within a week there has been some opportunity they want to talk
to me about. Then you hear nothing, but when you make contact again a few months
on, lo and behold they have something else for you. Well, I don’t believe that
nothing has gone on during that time, so you have to keep yourself front of mind
with these people,” he says.
Along with using headhunters, Hall had introductions to companies through the
advisers he dealt with at Arcadia and lawyers he met along the way. “You just
have to have your ear attuned to what may be going on and work at it,” he says.
“I have bursts of activity and get very enthusiastic about having drinks and
lunches and coffees with people. Then you’ve got to have a breather from that
for a while so you let those contacts work their way through.”
Hall is careful about the type of company he is prepared to work with.
Geographical location is very important for his work-life balance (“you don’t
really want to be spending a day and a half on the road trying to get there and
back for every meeting if you can avoid it”), but size of company is also an
issue. “The companies have to be small enough to get your arms around so you
feel you can make a contribution as a non-executive. The business shouldn’t be
so overwhelming that you’re struggling just by the complexity of it, or the
scale,” he says. “You have to understand what the company does. You must get to
know the people and must have enough exposure to senior managers to have a view
about their skills and abilities,” Hall explains.
And while he wouldn’t necessarily turn down a position at a multinational,
Hall says non-executive directors of such large businesses share the risks and
liability of doing business without ever knowing the business well enough to
make a contribution. “I don’t know how you’d get comfortable. Imagine the
exposure – we’ve seen, in some circumstances, that non-executives can’t protect
themselves. There are people who would not want to take on that responsibility
and risk,” he says. “One of the things I always want to know when doing my due
diligence is what is the directors’ and officers’ liability cover? But you
choose carefully the people you’re going to work with.”
Because being a non-executive director is not just about making up the
numbers at board meetings, Hall has developed several criteria he uses to assess
whether he would like to join a company, and personal interaction with the other
directors is at the top of the list. A non-executive’s job is to challenge and
Hall needs to know that the executive directors will be receptive to his
“One of the things I’ve learned over the past few months is that an awful lot
of these situations go nowhere, and I’ve learned not to get upset about it,”
Hall says. “For me, the number-one thing is choosing the people I want to work
with. It doesn’t matter how interesting the business would be on paper, if they
were not people I wanted to spend time with, I wouldn’t do it.
“These days, non-executives have the right to take independent advice, but in
the end there has got to be trust between the executives and the non-executives.
I’ve had good experiences in companies I’ve worked with so far. That doesn’t
always mean the business goes well, but the thing that matters is that the right
attitude and the right spirit is there.”
Although Hall says he doesn’t think he is a scary person, he takes very
seriously his duties as an independent director. He says you have to ask the
right questions, and even the most basic or silly questions about the business
are important. But you always have to remember that you are not there to be
dictatorial or run the company. “It’s a very fine balance you’re trying to ride
as a non-executive. You want to make a contribution, but at the same time you
have to respect the executives who are running the business,” he says.
“The one thing you have to avoid doing – and I do it too often – is say,
‘When we were Arcadia, this is what we did’. I cringe inwardly every time I do
that. But on the other hand, we did a lot of good things at Arcadia. Rather than
saying, ‘This is the way I’d do it’, I try to say, ‘Here’s something I found
very helpful when I was developing this or that’. You always have to put
yourself in their shoes.”
As a non-executive, Hall says you have to be conscious of your position in a
company. You are not part of a team that meets on a daily basis, so you are
viewed as an outsider. You can be seen as watchdog rather than a guardian of
business values and driver of performance, and you have little support. But Hall
believes it is generally a good thing for directors of public companies to have
some experience of another board in a different sector, even if they don’t
abandon executive life completely. “It adds value to that individual,” he says.
And, of course, you get to spend more time enjoying your home life. “Everyone
comes to a point in their life when they’d like to reduce the pressures and get
a bit more balance.”
By far the biggest difficulty for Hall was having to leave behind the people
and company culture at Arcadia. “I’m a people person. It’s a different
interaction with people when you work as a non-exec. You are not as close to
their lives as you are when you work at the company full-time. I knew which
football clubs my colleagues supported – there was more personal interaction,”
“I also miss the fact that I could pick up the phone and get someone to come
and mend my computer. It’s little things like that which can be incredibly
disruptive. But you find there are solutions to most challenges. Do I miss the
grind of being an executive? Do I miss the buzz? No, I don’t, not so far.”
Name – Nigel Hall
Age – 49
Qualifications – FCA
2004 – present – Non-executive director, Pinewood Shepperton
2003 – present- Advisor, Worlds Apart
2003 – present – Non-executive director, Unite plc
2002 – present – Non-executive director, HMTF Furniture
1984 – 2003 – Senior positions, including group FD, Arcadia Group
Biggest challenge – Not to overstep the invisible line
between being an executive and non-executive.
Biggest hassle – Being in the right place at the right time
with the right papers. Everything else is great.
Would you ever go back to being a finance director? – I
certainly don’t want to be a finance director anymore. I’m very happy with the
life I’ve embarked on.
Nearly two years since he left Arcadia, Nigel Hall has acquired a portfolio
of non-executive directorships. While carrying on as an independent director at
furniture company HMTF, Hall became chair of the audit committee at property
company Unite in March 2003, and chair of the remuneration and nomination
committees at film company Pinewood Shepperton in April 2004. He has also been
carrying out advisory services to Cornish leisure company Worlds Apart since
“Depending on how hard you want to work, and the size and complexity of the
company, a portfolio of five or six non-executive directorships is reasonable,”
Hall says. “With the company having 10 board meetings a year, one of which is an
away day, you’re working 12 days just for board meeting preparation. If you are
on an audit committee, that’s three more serious meetings. And if you’re on a
nomination committee, there could be a lot of meetings.”
Hall has plenty of advice for executive directors looking to take on non-exec
positions. First, it pays to get to know the company before you start making a
boardroom contribution. “I’m spending a couple of months at Pinewood meeting the
senior management, visiting the facilities and understanding how the operation
works. That involves days out on the business sites and spending time with the
Hall says it helps to join companies where you know your skills are valuable.
Unite, for example, has a portfolio of 70-80 properties, and Hall had extensive
experience managing Arcadia’s property portfolio of retail outlets.
But a word of warning: Hall says that FDs looking for a non-exec position are
usually hired to be chair of the audit committee – as he was at Unite. That is,
unless you get lucky and the company, like Pinewood, already has a strong audit
committee chair. “At Pinewood I am going to chair the nomination committee,
which is great. There will be new challenges and that’s fantastic, but whether
that will stop me being pigeonholed in the future, I don’t know.”
The one problem that Hall encounters managing his portfolio is the logistical
hassle of being in the right place at the right time. But there is a solution.
“When I first said I was going to become a serial non-exec, somebody gave me a
really good piece of advice which was to secure a non-exec chairmanship. Don’t
negotiate the salary. Just make sure the job comes with an office, PA and a
driver. I haven’t actually managed that, yet.”