‘Path to net zero’ driving boards 2022

By The Australian, Damon Kitney

Published Date: 2022/03


The Australian

Damon Kitney - 3 March 2022

Charting the best path to net zero emissions by 2050 and balancing the short-term demands of investors, suppliers and staff for “quick wins” on climate change policies is one of the most pressing issues for boards in 2022, according to a leading local boutique recruitment firm.

Derwent, which is run by Lindsay Every – the son of former Wesfarmers and Boral chairman Bob Every – believes that where managing digital transformation was the predominant theme for boards in 2021, the “pathway to net zero 2050” came to the fore in January this year.

“The questions firms are asking are around how they manage short-term stakeholder tension – shareholders, suppliers, staff and community – to be seen to be ­delivering quick wins with understanding how ultimately technology will serve to offset carbon or related ESG (environmental, social and governance) goals,” said Derwent founder Ben Derwent.

“Boards are asking what lens to look through: considering this theme in isolation may ultimately unwind investment endeavours in emerging markets or the ­equivalent.

“That said, green washing and/or doing nothing is equally ­harmful.” Mr Derwent said listed companies were setting up special purpose investment functions to identify and invest in technology to address decarbonisation and climate objectives.

“Additionally we are seeing the emergence of environmental and governance executives and specialist communications/IR professionals,” he said.

The powerful Australian Council of Superannuation Investors has warned that its members – with combined assets of more than $1 trillion – will vote against the re-election of directors they believe have failed to manage climate risk appropriately. Investors are also increasingly expecting companies to address material climate-related risks in their reporting.

At the same time, the corporate and prudential regulators in Australia have highlighted the need to address climate risk.

Derwent competes against the global executive recruiters, which include the likes of Spencer Stuart, Heidrick & Struggles, Egon Zehnder, Korn Ferry and Russell Reynolds, for “mandates” to recruit executives.

The Sydney-based firm, which will turn over more than $25m this year and boasts former News Corporation and Foxtel chief executive Peter Tonagh on its advisory board, handles more than 500 executive and board appointments a year.

Last year one of Derwent’s top appointments was assisting former Australia Post executive Nicole Sheffield become head of digital at Perth conglomerate Wesfarmers.

The firm also helped Australian Jane Huxley return home from the UK where she was a top global executive at streaming giant Spotify to take over the CEO role at Are Media, the magazine company formerly known as Bauer Media.

A year earlier it helped former Bank of Queensland and Bankwest chief executive Jon Sutton take the role of chief executive of working capital finance provider Scottish Pacific.

Mr Derwent said the current “noise” in global financial markets and among international central Banks about inflation was real, based on surging demand and supply constraints caused by closed borders and other caps on mobility during the Covid pandemic.

This, he said, was being fuelled by soaring wages growth in some sectors. “Particular spikes will continue well beyond the borders opening (although this will free up supply in some sectors), as demand for new and different skills will be hotly contested well ahead of adequate talent pipelines meeting demand – for example digital, data/tech, cyber, etc,’’ he said.

“Also absent from the wage inflation debate is the increase in the compulsory superannuation levy. This is another elephant in the room: as this will likely increase cost to firms, thus increasing firms’ wage bills,” Mr Derwent said.

He said boards were now providing “the 3 Cs for CEOs to get the strategy and structure set for an agenda of growth”.

“These are capital: good earnings and cash flow, tidy balance sheets and access to capital markets. Conviction: commitment to seeing this though and not flip- flopping. And culture: an organisation that is match fit to advance the firm beyond its core.” Mr Derwent added that the most progressive listed companies were now establishing so-called “corporate venture units”, discrete investment functions looking at emerging technologies and talent.

He said his firm’s point of difference against the global giants of the sector was its connections to the best local directors and executives.

“There’s no doubt that there is the rise of the super boutique. That doesn’t mean that it’s this default to the Aussie battler.

“But I think organisations are looking for something new and different. They’re looking for people that have got a greater connection to the domestic talent pool,” he said.

“That they are looking for the challenger brand which can bring forward some more courageous ideas, because things are moving quickly.

“And just putting Bob or Betty or the usual suspects in a predictable way into jobs is just gone. Derwent, from its heritage, has always been a challenger brand representing the new and different. So therefore that translates to putting different people into board roles than may have been there in the past. “It absolutely speaks to thinking about the X factor that drives private equity success and how can we take that secret sauce to other settings and sectors.”