BSkyB Investors Demand ‘Impartial’ Appointment of CEO

25 September 2003

Ten of BSkyB’s largest institutional investors summoned two of the company’s senior independent directors to a meeting Tuesday, seeking reassurance that nepotism will not call the shots in appointing a new chief executive to replace the outgoing Tony Ball.

The meeting, held just hours after Ball’s departure was formally announced, was called by the powerful Association of British Insurers – arguably Britain's most muscular shareholder body. It reflects the concern of ABI and other major shareholder groups that Rupert Murdoch intends to shoehorn his relatively inexperienced younger son James (30) into the ceo’s chair.

Murdoch, who chairs both BSkyB and its US parent News Corporation, holds 35.4% of BSkyB, effectively controlling the company via the largest single block of its shares. However, it is possible that ABI members, in concert with those of the National Association of Pension Funds, could outvote NewsCorp if push came to shove.

Little surprise then that two such senior independent BSkyB directors as Royal Mail chairman Allan Leighton and political fixer Lord Norman St John Stevas of Fawsley came running at the ABI’s behest.

The duo comprise 50% of BSkyB's Nomination Committee, hastily set-up by after the storm broke over Ball’s succession. Its other members are US publishing executive Gail Rebuck and John Thornton, former president of the Goldman Sachs Group with which BSkyB has enjoyed a close business relationship.

Warned an institutional shareholder: “I think they will be under scrutiny like no other committee has been under scrutiny. It's very sensitive.”

Leighton and Stevas were left in no doubt as to the ten's collective view. Reported the ABI “We told them in terms [sic] that the selection process must be rigorous and impartial. We shall wish to follow through with them to make sure it is rigorous.”

Meantime, departing ceo Tony Ball is laughing all the way to the bank. He could be entitled to a pay-off of up to £4.6m ($7.6m; €6.64m), according to BSkyB’s annual report, published Tuesday. But although the exact terms of his severance package are unknown, insiders say Ball has been carefully ringfenced from rival broadcasters by a stockade of fiscal incentives.

According to Wednesday’s Financial Times: “If the exercise of share options is taken into account, Mr Ball will have earned more than £30m during his four years at the helm of the company.”

Data sourced from: multiple origins; additional content by WARC staff