Last week I wrote in depth about the responsibilities of being a director of a company. I had no idea I’d need to write a follow up so quickly, but the news of Angela Lowes’ departure from the club immediately sets the chatter off again with fans allocating blame to her for every financial error made over twenty years and expecting some kind of Ronaldo of the accounting world to be appointed before Friday.
First of all, let’s consider what the Finance Director of a company does. This obviously varies from company to company but, fundamentally, they are responsible for making sure the accounting data for internal and external use is produced and useable, that all responsibilities to lenders, the Revenue, Companies House etc are met and, in well run companies, FDs tend to be useful resources for second opinions and sounding boards throughout the organisation. This is because every decision in a company has a financial implication and almost every privacy agreement in a business is known to the FD.
Having said all of that, they very rarely have the power to make decisions by themselves. After the FD confirms that we shouldn’t spend more than £1m because that’s what everyone agreed, that’s what the budget says, what the manager thinks and everyone can see is right, it’s not their fault if someone spends three times that on Netflix.
Boards which are run by overwhelmingly strong personalities tend to ignore the sensible accountant comments and go with their gut feeling. They won’t listen to the data, won’t accept the story that’s spelled out to them and end up pressing forwards with their own personal plans.
I’m obviously not commenting on the previous Sunderland boards because I don’t know, I wasn’t there. I don’t know Angela and have not spoken to Short, Bain, Rodwell or Donald for more than five minutes at a time. But I recognise some of the symptoms of badly run boards in the positions we found ourselves in time and time again.
If the Chief Exec gives a player (who goes on to be her client when she becomes an agent) a massive long term contract, there’s very little the FD can do apart from say what she thinks and carry on trying to pick up the pieces.
If the Chief Exec wants a cryochamber for his bad back resulting in the club’s medical bills being astronomical, there’s very little the FD can do apart from say what she thinks and carry on trying to pick up the perfectly refrigerated pieces.
If the owner is keen to get a player as a 3rd division marquee signing, there’s very little…. Well, you get the point.
Accountants in such companies spent a lot of their time being told to ‘sort that out’. As if the Chief Executives think that when we pass our exams, we’re told where the special secret money is hidden for bailing out the morons around you.
As I say, I wasn’t there and, for legal reasons, I’d like to point out none of these stories relate to real people or actual events. I’m just saying attaching any blame to Angela Lowes is almost certainly harsh. She was there, but she wasn’t the one pushing forwards with personal agenda.
I am reassured that KLD has brought in experts to offer advice across all things. I hope that continues as it not only shows he is prepared to listen but also gives other directors the opportunity to talk and come up with clear messages together to highlight where the Chairman or Chief Executive is misguided without it becoming a one on one slanging match. I think the loss of the club’s only female director is a real shame and the fact that there will be no full time UK based accountant on the board is also, to me, a mistake. But I’m an accountant so I’m biased.
What of a replacement? Well, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the FD role carved up. The data part of the role (budgets, management accounts etc) may well end up as part of the recently advertised head of data with a junior accountant doing the donkey work, the reporting and compliance aspects may well be outsourced and the financial know-how and second opinion role may well be fulfilled, at least in the short term, by Patrick Treuer, the Louis Dreyfus group’s Chief Financial Officer who has just joined the board.
My only fear with that is that the finance function can fall between multiple stools. Not a major concern while the company is relatively small (in terms of numbers of pounds and people) but as it grows, I’d hope the FD role is given greater credibility again by returning to the big table.
I suspect the decision has been taken that Angela is surplus to requirements. As I said before, I wasn’t in the meeting and don’t know the people involved so I may be way off but, my gut feeling is that, like too many FDs in too many companies, the decision to get rid would not have involved Angela but she would be told to sort it out and deal with the consequences.
I for one which her the best for the future and hope fans do not associate her too closely with some of the financial horrors that she will have seen over 20 years.