Inside Track: Centrica’s Conn job on stock award

Mark Kleinman
Follow Mark

TALK of energy suppliers and con tricks, and the assumption might be that the Big Six have been indulging in a reputation-shredding episode of doorstep mis-selling.

In the boardroom of Centrica, owner of British Gas, though, the phrase is acquiring a different meaning.

Directors have been preoccupied for weeks with prising Iain Conn, the long-serving BP manager, away from the oil giant, and into the chief executive’s role to be vacated by Sam Laidlaw.

Conn would be an obvious choice for the job. His demeanour and vast experience of the industry would make his a credible voice in public and in the boardroom amid an ongoing fracas over energy prices.

Talks have been going on for months, and both Centrica and Conn are said to want the appointment to happen – so why the hold-up?

The answer lies at least partly in approximately £16m of unvested share options on which Conn is sitting following nearly three decades at BP.

It is unsurprising if Conn wants reassurance about Centrica’s willingness to compensate him for those options, although sources say that the £16m is a maximum payout based on future performance rather than a guaranteed windfall.

Equally, the owner of British Gas must be nervous about awarding a substantial golden hello at the same time that it (along with rivals) faces criticism for not passing on falling wholesale gas costs to customers.

But Centrica directors should not lose sight of their responsibilities.

If they believe that Conn is the right person to lead the company, a row over a few million pounds’ worth of share options should not deter them.

If it does, it will be their shareholders who are the victims of a con trick.

It has its own horde of Mounties, but even the geekiest of technology company followers would not try to claim that the IT training firm FDM is the most prominent of this year’s flotations.

However, it would be remiss of City bankers and institutional investors to overlook the £240m fundraising announced by FDM earlier this week.

Three years after senior Blackrock executives complained about the size of IPO syndicates and the lack of engagement with fund managers, the evidence of this year’s listings wave is that little has changed.

Many have been characterised by typically oversized bank lists which can stifle independent research and often command usurious fees for taking little real risk.

FDM might therefore provide an important template, particularly for mid-market share sales.

One bank – in this case, Investec – ran the whole show, securing an exit for Inflexion, FDM’s private equity owner since 2010.

Investors (who are understood to include Blackrock, JO Hambro and Threadneedle) say they bought in partly because there was less chance of them being disappointed by the allocation process.

And there was less of the blurred messaging that frequently stems from bookrunners vying for attention on a deal.

A single-bank approach may be less likely to work on, say, a £1bn fundraising. But FDM’s float suggests it should be deployed less sparingly than it is now.

Like buses, you wait ages for a breakdown recovery firm to arrive on the stock market, then two – the AA and the RAC, the market leaders by revenues – turn up at once.

I’m not convinced, though, that the RAC will make it to the public markets. Sources suggest that there has been interest from private equity firms wanting to exploit its nascent growth in telematics and big data, and heavy recent investment under Carlyle’s ownership.

The RAC’s float might yet get parked.

Mark Kleinman is the City editor at Sky News