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Boardroom farce

01 Aug 2002

READERS following the political tragi-comedy being played out in Brussels will recall that we left them in suspense at the end of the last act (RG 6.02 p281). Candidates for the post of Managing Director of Belgian National Railways had been invited for the third time, with the hero of the piece Etienne Schouppe once again thought to be applying to have his old job back.

The previous search for someone to take on the top executive post at SNCB had ended in rather ignominious failure when Christian Heinzmann, Managing Director of Luxair, accepted it and then promptly resigned. In the third round, Russel Reynold Associates was appointed to find the ideal person. The firm put forward several candidates, adding at the last minute Karel Vinck, a well-known businessman who had worked for Eternit, turned round both Union Minière and Bekaert and was chairman of the Flemish Entrepreneurs' Association. Vinck was also Chairman of Umicore, part of the Suez Group, and happened to be the preferred candidate of the Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt.

A slight hitch emerged in that the procedure followed by the headhunters did not meet all the legal requirements as it turned out that Vinck had not actually applied for the job. Legal proceedings had already been instigated by candidates applying to be board members who felt that they had been unfairly rejected, and to avoid yet another legal challenge before the State Council, a fourth attempt was made to find a suitable Chief Executive. This time an advertisement was published in Le Moniteur belge on June 15, and by an extraordinary coincidence the choice of the newly-appointed headhunter, De Witte & Morel, fell on one Karel Vinck.

Vinck's appointment is for three years, during which he will also keep his chairmanship of Umicore. He has already said that he wants to chair SNCB's Strategic Committee and Remuneration Committee, which would mean that the law passed on May 22 would have to be changed. This did not exactly find favour with Transport Minister Isabelle Durant, whose credibility has suffered somewhat from the whole exercise. A Belgian compromise has been adopted to get round the problem. This takes the form of a special six-man monitoring committee formed of SNCB Chairman Alain Deneef, Vinck, a partner from consultancy firm Bain Benelux, the former chairman of the Association of Belgian Accountants, the former boss of industrial conglomerate Barco and the former boss of steel company Cockerill Chambre. This committee will 'accompany' Vinck during the first six months of his tenure and then come up with recommendations.

At the request of the state the new board changed the 2001 financial results from a consolidated profit of €1·3m into a consolidated loss of €177·5m to take account of losses arising from freight and logistics subsidiary ABX. Deneef does not share Schouppe's opinion that ABX could help drive SNCB's future development. Instead he wants to get rid of ABX as quickly as possible, which does not augur well for Schouppe's job there.