Private businesses don’t have a legal duty to appoint a company secretary, yet many astute firms still fill the position. Simon Osborne, chief executive of qualifying body ICSA, explains why the job is crucial to companies of all sizes
Following the Companies Act 2006, private businesses are no longer legally required to employ a company secretary, but with British firms facing ongoing regulatory change and corporate governance pressures, many still fill the role.
This, says Simon Osborne, chief executive of the Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators (ICSA), is because the burden of duties that was previously undertaken by a company secretary has not eased: “Private companies that have abolished the role have suffered the loss of an independent thinker – someone with a sharp focus on the way the company does business,” he says.
Osborne has spent more than two decades as a company secretary for public and private businesses. He took over the helm of ICSA, which has 33,000 members across 72 countries, in 2011. Here, he explains what
the role of company secretary entails – and why it can be vital to small businesses…
Director What does the role of the company secretary involve?
SO The company secretary is an adviser to the chair and the board on a company’s values, purpose, and governance framework. It involves strategic thinking around why and how the company is doing business and the compliance procedures needed to ensure it operates in accordance with its values. Duties include maintaining company registers, ensuring filings are made promptly and on time with Companies House, keeping the minutes of board and committee meetings, and ensuring director service contracts are up to date. But a company secretary can also be involved with HR, pensions, risk management and insurance.
Why do some private companies still employ a company secretary even though there is no longer a legal requirement? And who does the burden fall on if a firm doesn’t have one?
The burden falls on the directors. Despite the requirement being abolished for private businesses [it still exists for public companies], the work hasn’t gone away and there are liabilities that directors face if particular work isn’t undertaken. Companies House is vigilant in chasing up directors if, for example, accounts aren’t filed on time. There is a much more serious risk of fixed penalties being levied these days, so it doesn’t pay to cut corners. It’s important that SMEs understand that as they grow they will have to move away from ‘kitchen table governance’ to a more mature form of governance, and that means having access to someone who can be a wise friend to members of the board.
What about small businesses that can’t afford to employ a full-time company secretary?
It’s very important that small companies have access to someone who can assist them with the duties that a company secretary in a bigger business would undertake. SMEs don’t necessarily have to employ someone full time – they could, for instance, have an arrangement with a freelance chartered secretary or hire on a part-time basis. There is evidence that shows good governance and better financial performance go hand-in-hand, and a company secretary can help with that.
What are the biggest benefits of employing a company secretary?
Having access to a governance, risk and compliance professional – someone with a grounding in finance, risk, strategy and law, and an understanding of the law of meetings. It’s easy to think of some meetings as a doddle, but sometimes they go wrong or unexpected things happen. Agenda-setting can be viewed as a bureaucratic function but it actually needs some thought, and so do meeting minutes – it’s important to remember that one day those minutes may be read by a judge in a court of law.
What qualifications does a company secretary need and what should business leaders look for when appointing?
There is a qualification standard in the 2006 Companies Act and that includes barristers, solicitors, someone from a regulated accountancy body or, if you’re from Scotland, an advocate. Ideally, the individual will be a chartered secretary. A business should appoint someone with emotional intelligence and the ability to form good working relationships – the person needs to be able to negotiate, listen and influence. It’s not a role for prima donnas. They need resilience and fortitude because the pressures under which they will work are significant. Choose someone with the ability to give wise advice without upsetting people.
What advice would you give to business leaders who might not have a great understanding of the importance of the role, particularly new or young directors?
Good chief executives recognise the value of a company secretary, but ICSA did some research with Henley Business School [The Company Secretary: Building trust through corporate governance report] and discovered that there is still a need to educate some non-executive directors and head-hunting firms. Increasingly, search firms are being used for recruitment purposes and I’m not sure they understand what the role involves. Younger directors have more humility on the matter. Most new directors would be able to see the value of having a wise adviser. The role of a director is becoming increasingly professionalised – you wouldn’t go to a doctor, dentist or accountant who doesn’t keep up to date so it shouldn’t be any different with boards. A company secretary is a valuable employee so should be cherished.
Name Simon Osborne
Role Chief executive of the Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators (ICSA)
Previous position Osborne worked as a company secretary at Railtrack. He also spent 20 years as an in-house lawyer for British Rail.
Did you know? Osborne was involved in Railtrack from its formation in 1994 – working with the late Sir Robert Horton – until its closure in what was the largest ever liquidation of a solvent company in Britain.