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The Hundred Group comes out of the shadows

Can it be a coincidence that Vodafone’s chief financial officer (CFO) Andy Halford has been made the new chairman of The Hundred Group, which has put tax issues at the top of its agenda for years?

Halford was front and centre of the phone company’s recent, controversial battle with HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) over tax owed from its Luxembourg subsidiary – concluding last October with HMRC boss Dave Hartnett agreeing a settlement worth £5m less than expected.

It was a major coup for Halford and indeed for his brethren at The Hundred Group, the influential but quiet lobbying group made up of the UK’s top FDs and CFOs – but it came rather ironically when the government fired up its claims that it is serious about cracking down on tax avoidance and reforming the rules around taxing controlled foreign companies.

Being well versed in twisting the arm of the authorities and excellently well-connected at the top levels of government (reflected not least in his membership of HM Treasury’s business forum on tax and competitiveness), Halford will probably make a powerful chair for the group.

What is surprising is that, when The Hundred Group announced he would succeed BG Group CFO Ashley Almanza this March, Halford said raising the profile of the group – currently, almost non-existent to the point that this magazine has in the past described it as “the most influential organisation that you’ve never heard of” – would be one of his priorities.

To date, The Hundred Group has kept its machinations firmly behind closed doors. But in the days after his appointment was announced, Halford moved swiftly to demonstrate his belief that it needed to be more open. Its perenially bare and hideously out-of-date web site was relaunched with clear information on members and committees, when they plan to meet, and copies of correspondence.

That seemingly modest improvement speaks volumes about how the group could operate under Halford. It marks a genuine shift towards including the business community in the conversations it has with regulators and governments.

Chairmen before Almanza seem to have tried to raise the group’s profile even against its members’ preference for discretion – not necessarily among the media and other observers, but more with regulators and key in policymakers in Europe and the US. His predecessor, former Prudential FD Philip Broadley, called The Hundred Group “a peculiarly British idea”, but spoke to Financial Director while he was chair about the man hours he put into promoting the group in Brussels and Washington. “Quite tricky” was how he described it at the time.

“Hopefully, at the end of [my] two years, we’ll be a little bit better known in Brussels where decisions there do affect all of the members,” he told us.

But even he showed a reluctance to review its secretive approach. “The Hundred Group has been around for 35 years, influencing in a quiet way. It’s a successful formula and I’m not about to radically change it,” he said.

While highly regarded by other members for the work he did as chairman of the group internally, Almanza is said to be very press-averse by other FDs, and they suggest that the continuing secretive tone of The Hundred Group emanates from that. Conversely, it seems Halford is happier to be a reachable spokesperson for the group, and for it to be more open.

For example, he told Financial Director in an exclusive interview three years ago that the investor relations piece of the Vodafone CFO job was something he relished. “I actually thoroughly enjoy the communication side of the job, both externally and internally” he said. “I suspect I actually put in a lot more time on the investor side than maybe had been the case [with my predecessor].”

It may be reasonable to expect that this attitude will prevail in his dealings as chair of the UK’s most influential lobbying power for FDs.

 

Behind the mask

Despite The Hundred Group having always operated in a discreet way, Financial Director has managed to speak with at least four FDs who have served as its chairman over the last two decades about the group’s work. Secrecy aside, Financial Director has managed to speak with at least four FDs who have served as The Hundred Group chairman over the last two decades about the group’s work.

2010: Ashley Almanza Almanza, FD for BG Group, spoke last March about its annual collaboration with PwC to examine the total tax contributions of The Hundred Group’s member companies. He said it “gives us a basis for a really positive dialogue with the government”

2006: Philip Broadley Then FD of Prudential, Broadley said: “The [International Financial Reporting Standards] convergence goal is not, of itself, immediately obvious as a benefit. It’s some years too late to be arguing that you’d rather that wasn’t the goal”

2003: Jon Symonds Then FD for AstraZeneca, Symonds told us: “[The Hundred Group’s] effectiveness is increased through having a dialogue with government regulators early, trying to get in at an earlier stage… rather than wait until you read it in the newspapers and say, ‘Oh, I hate this’.”

2001: John Coombe “We keep an eye out for issues and we go on the issue where we have points to make,” Coombe, then FD for Glaxo, said while he was chair. “If there are no issues, frankly, we just get on with our day job”

1991: Hugh Collum “We didn’t want to be a bureaucratic group with lots of rigid rules and an expensive secretariat. We’ve stuck with the principle that working party members are FDs and not their subordinates,” Collum, then FD of SmithKlineBeecham, told Financial Director in 1991

Read and comment on our blog on Andy Halford’s appointment here

 

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