Staying Power

Some CEOs have held the reins for decades, but longevity does not equate to a good media profile. Rob Gray finds out why

In 1967, two years before man first walked on the moon, Ken Morrison took the Morrisons retail chain public. He had already spent a dozen years running the company that was established when his father set up a market stall in Bradford in 1899.

Last year, of course, Morrisons acquired Safeway, cementing its position among the FTSE 100 elite. And its extraordinary executive chairman, knighted five years ago for services to food retailing, is by far and away the longest standing leader of a major UK plc. According to online business broadcaster Cantos, which each summer publishes an annual CEO survey, average length of tenure is five years. This is up from 4.6 years in 2003 and 4.4 years in 2002.

This research into CEO longevity begs some interesting questions. Does time in the job have any bearing on how the business press and investors perceive the company? Does it, indeed, exert any influence on the amount and nature of media coverage?

‘I think CEO longevity counts quite a bit,’ says Observer business editor Frank Kane. ‘The wily old bird who’s been around a while will know how to treat the press, and will have got to know the senior journalists who count. In my experience, newly promoted CEOs tend to be more cautious of the business press than they should be. It’s the job of their PR man to make them aware of the potential benefits of press relationships.’

Time at the top

The Sunday Times business editor William Lewis agrees. ‘Yes, longevity with success counts, but longevity with sustained failure has the opposite impact. One looks over time for concrete and sustained measures of success, not longevity itself.’

Evening Standard City editor Anthony Hilton does not think longevity per se makes any difference. However, he feels it does increase the likelihood that journalists will know the chief executive personally and by extension know whether or not the person in question delivers on his or her promises.

‘Inevitably there is a bias towards people you know – as in any other business relationship – but that bias is more likely to show through [journalists] making the company one of those selected for coverage rather than making the coverage itself favourable,’ Hilton elaborates. ‘That’s an important distinction. Track record also matters and clearly the longer someone has been in the job, the longer the track record.’

The business media consensus is therefore that there are some advantages in CEO longevity. It would be misleading, though, to imply a direct correlation between longevity and media profile. Take Daily Mail and General Trust chief executive Charles Sinclair. A highly regarded strategist, Sinclair – the third longest serving occupant of the CEO position at a FTSE 100 company – shuns the media and limits his investor relations activities. Finance director Peter Williams handles all City events and presentations.

Morrison himself is known to be a reluctant communicator with the Square Mile, preferring to avoid set-piece City events wherever possible. Nevertheless, at the beginning of the bid for Safeway, Morrison talked to journalists and analysts during store visits – and proved himself adept at getting his message across in an environment in which his expertise shone through. ‘He had the sheer ability to tell people how he’d achieved what he had and how he would transfer these skills to running Safeway. He’s a natural born communicator,’ says Citigate Dewe Rogerson CEO Jonathan Clare.

These talents led The Independent to write about Morrison’s ‘legions of private shareholders who are happy to hero worship the plain-speaking Yorkshireman’ in May 2004. The article went on to quote one shareholder as saying approvingly: ‘I’ve seen Ken Morrison stacking shelves more times than I used to see my own managing director.’

This image of a hands-on business manager is certainly helpful, conveying as it does attention to detail and understanding of in-store issues.

Legal & General head of public relations John Morgan supposes that ‘longevity equals credibility in certain respects’. Chief executive David Prosser hired Morgan on taking the helm at the insurance group, and the two men have worked together for 13 years. Morgan is at pains to point out that the comms focus is resolutely on the results of the business as the company culture is not to overemphasise the individual. He accepts that this can be ‘dull’ from a journalist’s point of view, but jokes that dull is what you want from an insurance company.

‘The bottom line has got to be the credibility of management,’ says Morgan. ‘A lot of flamboyant CEOs have come a cropper. Think of people like Robert Maxwell. Where journalists have respect for the individual, you know you’ve cracked it. My role has been to demonstrate that, but at the end of the day it’s business results that count.’

Credo Communications managing partner David Hargreaves, whose clients include Sage, where Paul Walker has been CEO for almost 11 years, says charisma and something out of the ordinary are probably more important in gaining business press coverage than length of tenure.

Sometimes that interest is generated by an illuminating insight or memorable comment. For instance, Carphone Warehouse chief executive Charles Dunstone was quoted by The Times in March 2004 telling a dinner gathering that the secret of his retailing success was ‘acting like a whore and giving people what they want’.

For newer chief executives, particularly those brought in to turn around a struggling company, publicity can often be of greater importance than it is to the old hands. As well as heightening their own profile, PR helps them communicate with their employees without going through middle management.

It can also, believes Hilton, help create an expectation of change in the workforce that makes it easier to execute new strategies. Hilton sounds a word of warning, though, for those CEOs who do not have a clear vision and the ability to articulate thoughts succinctly: ‘Many new CEOs in truth have no idea what to do and they come out with such a mixture of clichés and bullshit that while they get coverage, it is often fairly sceptical.’

Longevity has its advantages. But it is performance and no-nonsense vision that really count.

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