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Guns for hire

WorldCom’s appointment in August of a “chief restructuring officer” to turn around the blighted company and get it out of Chapter 11 was the coming of age for interim managers. As senior executives with bags of experience, interim managers are generally appointed for a particular assignment on a short-term basis of between three months and a year.

Interims are more than a simple stop-gap, doing more than just filling in when a senior executive suddenly departs through sacking, illness or death. Increasingly, interims are change managers – not consultants – taking the reins of a department, division or an entire company. They have the advantage of being untainted by company politics and able to focus clearly on strategic decisions.

In recent years, interims” skills have been in such demand that it is estimated that every one of the FTSE-100 companies has used an interim manager. As a result, an industry worth an estimated £500m annually has sprung up in order to supply them. Companies such as Ashton Penney and Boyden Interim Management offer interim executives possessed with as many skills as you want, from databases holding thousands of candidates’ details.

However, an interim manager’s services come at a price. The creme de la creme earn up to £750 a day, with the agency taking an additional £200 to £300 a day. But ask a company which has hired such an individual whether this is cost-effective and the response is often frank. “It is often the only option,” says John Ross, head of financial management at Old Mutual Assurance. “In some circumstances, anything else is too risky.”

Ross turned to an interim manager when he had to make operational changes at a previous company. “I had to move quickly to change management but had no obvious candidates to put in place. The existing individual wasn’t up to the task so I needed someone who could get the show on the road.” The interim manager then turned the department round, while Ross hired a new permanent member of staff at a later date.

Ross believes that, in an era when ageism is rife, the very thing that puts many employers off recruiting certain people – their maturity and experience – is exactly what they look for in the right interim manager.

“True, they can be expensive, but if you have no one in a key area then it’s money well spent,” he says. And, when you consider all the holiday and sickness money you are not paying with an interim, the costs begin to appear more equitable.

There are many advantages in hiring such a corporate gunslinger, says Nick Robeson, managing director of Boyden Interim Management. “These guys are charismatic, lucid, lateral thinkers and take things on board very quickly. The cost of letting someone senior go can be high, and since interim managers are paid on a daily rate, they don’t have to be tied into large executive contracts.”

However, the costs of hiring an interim are not always economic. Staff do not take kindly to newcomers with an agenda for change, less so if they know the individual is only going to be around for six months. “Change is very difficult and people get frightened,” says Christopher Kirkham-Sandy, who became an interim manager in 1989 after selling out of a business.

Kirkham-Sandy has worked for Wilkinson Sword and Laird, the automotive parts business, among others. “It requires sensitivity. If you handle it properly the staff respond well – if you don’t, you are seen as a threat,” he says.

Another important aspect of the interim executive’s role is to leave behind the right environment for the new, long-term management, says David Harris, partner at the Ashton Penney Partnership. So skills need to be transferred to the new management. “It’s as much about mentoring as anything,” he says.

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