We had wondered when The Hundred Group would get a chairman who would respond to press requests for comment. And I hope the announcement today that Vodafone CFO Andy Halford is succeeding BG group CFO Ashley Almanza in that role will make that happen. With Halford’s appointment, Almanza becomes the group’s vice-chairman, taking a step down to support the new boss, and from next March Almanza also takes on the role of chairman for its tax committee, succeeding Glaxosmithkline CFO Julian Heslop. Outgoing chairman Almanza tipped his hat to Halford’s “wealth of UK and international experience… at a time when the competiveness of the UK and large UK companies has never been more important,” he said. “I have every confidence that The Hundred Group will continue to play an influential and constructive role under Andy’s leadership.”
But what is that influence? Anyone who has tried to talk with the group’s members about their work will attest that it is like getting blood out of a frozen stone. Almanza’s PA at BG group, Jan Honey, and the group’s secretary Jo Thethi (day job: a BG Group press officer) have fielded more requests for face time with him in his tenure as chairman (from Financial Director at least, but we know from others too) than Jamie Oliver has cooked school dinners, but all have come to nothing – and that is unheard of at FD Towers. He has remained utterly mute on his work for the group for the duration of his tenure, so it’s impossible to know if he made a jot of difference.
The Hundred Group must review this strategy. Though it may be thought some sort of best practice for a group of such high-ranking FDs to keep schtum on high-ranking conversations and deals brokered, even giving the group an air of authority and mystique that reconfirms its image as a top-flight pressure group, it has always seemed bizarre that their chairman seemingly could never make the time to return calls from journalists covering those efforts on behalf of FDs everywhere. (In contrast, members including Rio Tinto FD Guy Elliott and London Stock Exchange CFO Doug Webb have been more amenable to broach the topic in exclusive interviews with us, while HSBC CFO and now CEO-designate Doug Flint has been happy for some of his conversations to be shared with the general public).
Halford is far more practised in defending himself and his business to the press and has managed to come through the high-profile tax case with his job and his reputation intact, so I hope he’ll be more amenable to sharing his efforts with us – and with the UK’s FD community at large (and he granted us an exclusive interview in 2009). Surely any decent lobbying group staffed by CFOs must see the value in transparency, even if it must be measured in their case – so I’d add to my list of complaints its website, which appears all but defunct having last been updated in 2008 (though was revamped in the days after Halford’s appointment).
And there’s no doubt in my mind that the choice of Halford means tax reform is top of the agenda for the group and is a timely, logical way for him to consolidate the profile he has gained in fighting for the tax regime big business FDs want. Halford made a home in the headlines of the business press in recent years as he fought for Vodafone to avoid a large fine from HM Revenue & Customs for dealings through its Luxembourg vehicle, which concluded this October with a ‘sweetheart’ settlement between Halford and HMRC that saw the company pay a lot less in fines than was expected.
His handling of the case which ended in a settlement that came in under Vodafone’s own expectations of what they’d have to cough up has, whatever your personal feeling about tax avoidance and doing deals with Dave Hartnett is, painted him in a very favourable light as an expert operator in the business world. Plus he was hand-picked for the business forum for competitiveness and tax set up by David Cameron in June, staffed by seven heavyweight CFOs including Diageo CFO-designate Deirdre Mahlan, Glaxo’s Heslop and Shell’s Simon Henry.
Financial Director‘s resident tax geek David Jetuah tells me that Halford will be “seen as a standard-bearer for those companies unhappy with the UK’s tax regime”. As he says, the matter of the Treasury’s stance on how multinationals use funds in low-tax countries overseas is something that causes a lot of FDs a major headache in terms of compliance and in making provisions for a hefty tax bill, as well as the associated court costs.
“Halford’s new position will give him some genuine traction in discussing this and other FD issues,” says Jetuah.