As the downturn thrusts finance chiefs into the spotlight, with cost-cutting and restructuring rife across the corporate world, some will shine brighter than others. Some executives have burnished their reputations under the pressure of the past 12 months, while others have faded away.
In the highest profile CFO-to-CEO move of 2008, Anglo-Dutch oil company Shell announced in October that finance chief Peter Voser will take over as chief executive next July. Voser joined Shell in 2004, helping the company clean up its finances after a reserves-reporting scandal. Another Anglo-Dutch group, consumer-goods company Unilever, announced in September that Paul Polman, CFO of Swiss food firm Nestlé, would take over as chief executive at the start of 2009, the first external CEO appointment in the company’s history. Frédéric Oudéa’s promotion from CFO to CEO, meanwhile, was bittersweet. At French bank Société Générale, where he was finance chief for five years, Oudéa enjoyed a vote of confidence from the board, but he must now deal with the credit crunch as well as the fallout from the €5 billion rogue trader scandal that exploded spectacularly a year ago.
In the UK, a number of current and former finance chiefs helped craft the government’s bank recapitalisation plan, which became a template for other countries’ response to the financial crisis. Peter Sands and Richard Meddings, the CEO and CFO respectively of Standard Chartered, drew up an early blueprint of the plan. (Sands was CFO of the bank before becoming CEO in 2006.) Before the initiative was unveiled in October, Naguib Kheraj, a former finance director of Barclays who now heads JPMorgan Cazenove, also added his input.
Around the same time, the CFOs of savings banks KfW, in Germany, and Caisse d’Epargne, in France, looked less competent after risk management blunders. KfW earned the moniker “Germany’s dumbest bank” from the tabloids when it failed to cancel a €300m transfer to Lehman Brothers after the American institution declared bankruptcy. The money was seized by the bank’s administrators, costing CFO Detlef Leinberger his job. At Caisse d’Epargne, unauthorised trades by some of its traders left the bank with a €750m loss. Finance chief Julien Carmona resigned, and the French finance ministry requested a special audit of all the country’s banks.
Gilbert Mittler, former CFO of Fortis, drew a personal rebuke from Belgium’s prime minister, Yves Leterme, when he received €4m upon leaving the bank’s board in August — “scandalous,” in Leterme’s opinion. Laid low by the ABN Amro takeover and ill-advised subprime bets, Fortis has since been broken up and nationalised. Mittler’s pay was cited as the spur for a new law restricting “golden parachutes” at firms across the country. After 20 mostly successful years at the bank, it was probably not the impression that he imagined leaving on his way out.