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Last Updated: Monday, 10 November, 2003, 13:41 GMT
Boarding school to boardroom
By Rafael Behr
BBC News Online business

James Murdoch
Young Blood: James Murdoch is the FTSE 100's youngest CEO
Not every father would trust his college drop-out son with a business capitalised at 12.9bn.

Then again, not every college drop-out has run a TV channel with 300m viewers, and turned it to profit from 100m-a-year losses in under 4 years.

Meet the Murdochs.

James, 30, the son, is former chairman of Asia's Star TV and newly named chief executive of European broadcaster BSkyB, Britain's 19th largest company.

Rupert, 72, the father, is chairman of international media behemoth News Corp, which controls 35.4% of BSkyB.

James is now the youngest CEO of a FTSE top 100 company.

In the case of BSkyB and the Murdoch selection, it's a throwback to a succession process that we hoped had vanished
Rakesh Khurana, Harvard Business School

He usurps the title from Simon Wolfson, who was a tender 33 when named chief executive at clothes retailer Next.

Next shares wobbled when Wolfson, whose father, was a former company chairman, took over.

But by all accounts the new kid did OK.

He had worked his way up the company, with a stint as managing director, before taking the helm.

Only his apocryphal habit of finishing sentences in meetings by saying "does that make any sense?" hinted at youthful inexperience.

Young guns

But youth for youth's sake has generally proved a risky strategy.

In the late 1990s the sheer pace at which technology emerged gave ideas a premium over experience.

A new generation of young chief executives appeared at the head of companies such as Yahoo, Dell and Amazon.com in the US and Lastminute.com in the UK.

Boardroom
Fashion has a profound influence on boardroom nominations

Jeans and trainers didn't exactly oust pin stripes from the boardroom, but there was a trend for emulating the dynamism of the start-up by hiring downy-chinned executives.

It was short-lived, say recruiters.

"There was a backlash after the dotcom bubble to get people who, frankly, could run a business," says Nick Marsh, director of board practice at executive head-hunters Harvey Nash. "We've been getting fairly explicit guidance to 'go and get a proper chief executive.'"

Of course when it comes to choosing a CEO, directors never admit to being driven by anything other than the most sober analysis of shareholder interests.

But fashion has long played a part.

Pin stripes and shoulder pads

The revolution began in the 1980s with the cult of the superstar CEO.

The savage recessions of the1970s had shaken companies out of decades of grey-suited complacency.

Boards started looking for great helmsmen who could navigate their companies through the shark-infested waters of free-for-all capitalism.

Privatisation also meant a spread in popular share ownership. Shoulder pads and red braces spread from the City to the High Street.

And as more people owned shares, more people cared who was in charge of companies. Increased public attention turned charisma into a marketable commodity.

As a board, if you're feeling reasonably bullish you will perhaps be more likely to go for youth
Nick Marsh, executive head-hunter

"The media in one way played a role putting more attention on the CEO," says Rakesh Khurana, assistant professor of business administration at Harvard Business School.

"Now it is playing a very effective role as a governance mechanism."

According to Professor Khurana, there has been a process of "shareholder democratisation" in the last 15-20 years, putting pressure on companies to be more open.

Popular scrutiny also narrows executives' margins of error.

One false move in the media glare and the share price tumbles. Heads then roll.

The average tenure of a FTSE or Fortune 500 chief executive is now under four years, down from ten years a decade ago.

A tendency towards revolving door appointments also creates opportunities for young high-fliers.

graphic
Young entrepreneurs have helped break the glass ceiling

Some sectors - technology, telecoms, financial services - generally hire younger.

Traditional heavy industries and manufacturing put a higher premium on experience

Young bosses also tend to be more in favour in an economic upturn, while directors will seek grey hair for comfort in leaner times.

"It's a confidence issue," says Mr Marsh. "As a board, if you're feeling reasonably bullish you will perhaps be more likely to go for youth."

By and large companies in the US hire younger executives, with the UK following that trend, with continental Europe and Asia staying greyer.

This, say analysts, is due to the larger pool of entrepreneurs graduating into management from the 1980s boom in venture capitalism and financial services - traditional training grounds for precocious young achievers.

What's in an age?
Next youngest FTSE 100 chief executive is Simon Wolfson, of Next, age 35
Youngest FTSE 100 chairman is Viscount Rothermere, of Daily Mail & General Trust, age 35
Non-executive director Fabiola Arrendondo of BOC is also 35
Executive director George Weston of Associated British Foods is 38
Oldest FTSE 100 director is Masao Inagaki, 80, who holds a non-executive post at WPP

Besides, according to Harvard Business School research, 40-65% of a company's performance comes down to the underlying economic cycle and industry-specific conditions.

A family affair

Depending on whom you believe, the BSkyB appointment is either an inspired injection of youthful vigour or a reckless triumph of nepotism over shareholder interests.

Dynastic succession has by and large fallen out of favour in the boardroom.

"In the case of BSkyB and the Murdoch selection, it's a throwback to a succession process that we hoped had vanished, " says Professor Khurana.

"It resembles more the process of how kingdoms are handed over."

The precedents for keeping it in the family are mixed. Simon Marks inherited the stewardship of retailer Marks and Spencer with great success, as did John Sainsbury.

Warwick Fairfax, however, fresh from a Harvard MBA, took over his father's Australian newspaper group at 26, and bankrupted it in three years.

Reach for the sky

BSkyB dissenters steered clear of direct aspersions on James Murdoch's credentials, being concerned more about the manner in which the appointment was made.

Heavyweight internal candidates were passed over despite the use of executive head-hunters and a nominations committee, and the shortlist handed to the board consisted of only one name.

As one industry observer put it: "I would have preferred it if they said 'we don't give a hoot, we're going to appoint him anyway.' But to hide behind a smokescreen of head-hunters and nominations committees is a bit bogus."


SEE ALSO:
Q&A: Murdoch Jr takes BSkyB reins
04 Nov 03  |  Business



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