Clifford Chance CEO election hots up

As speculation mounts about who will be the next CEO, Abigail Townsend gives the lowdown on the favourites

At least two of Clifford Chance‘s most senior managers are set to go head-to-head as the battle to replace chief executive officer (CEO) Michael Bray heats up.

London managing partner Peter Charlton and joint European managing partner Peter Cornell are both understood to have been nominated.

But there are a host of other partners whose names have been mentioned in connection with the election. They include Asia managing partner John East, global head of banking Stuart Popham and joint managing partner for the Italian operations Nick Wrigley.

Although Bray is not due for retirement until 2002, the firm wants a replacement by the summer. This is when chief operating officer (COO) Garth Pollard will leave. Pollard announced his retirement earlier this year (The Lawyer, 8 January).

The COO acts as number two to the CEO. Therefore, in the words of one partner, recruiting the COO first would be “putting the cart before the horse”. There is already speculation that the structure of the COO role will change once Pollard leaves.

The closing date for CEO nominations is mid-March. After this, the nominations will be whittled down to two and partners will then vote.

The successful nominee will be CEO-designate until Bray’s retirement in 2002, when chairman Keith Clark is also due to retire. Both Bray and Clark, like Pollard, will retire one year ahead of schedule. As yet, there have been no official discussions about Clark’s replacement.

Peter Charlton

The London managing partner is seen as an odds-on favourite to replace Bray and is understood to be Bray’s preferred choice. As Bray will have to work alongside his replacement for at least a year, this is sure to be a deciding factor.

Charlton was a star of the corporate department prior to taking on the London post, and his loss was felt. But people are now used to him taking a less active fee-earning role, which again could work in his favour.

On the downside, he is seen as being very London-orientated. One senior source close to the firm believes “the risk of significant departures is quite substantial” should Charlton get the job.

Peter Cornell

Cornell was a candidate back in 1997, when he was Spanish managing partner, but very quickly withdrew from the race. One Clifford Chance insider believes this could stand against him. “A lot of people are asking whether his heart is in it. He dropped out before and there is a slight fear among some partners that he will do it again,” he says.

But there has been market speculation that this time round Cornell, now joint managing partner of Europe, is eager for a new challenge. Some believe that he is also the antithesis of Charlton and will therefore appeal to those outside the Charlton camp. Says one source: “He is very popular, very able and almost single-handedly responsible for the Spanish practice.”

But there is a downside. “The concern people have is that he is not tough enough,” adds the source. “He does not take people’s kneecaps out.” This subtlety could prove unpopular with the US contingent.

Nick Wrigley

“An interesting candidate,” is one insider’s response to Wrigley. “He’s not had any serious management experience so maybe it’s more a case of putting down a marker.”

Wrigley has a close relationship with Cornell and could be aiming to take on the COO role if Cornell gets the CEO position. One source confirms: “He’d like to put himself forward as part of a team. He’s saying he could be the Garth Pollard to Peter Cornell’s Michael Bray.” One source claims that the current Clifford Chance management has tried to dissuade Wrigley from standing. Whether the partners go for that is another matter altogether.

Stuart Popham

The global head of finance is believed to want a bigger role in the management of the firm, although an eerie silence hangs around him when it comes to nominations.

Popham is very well respected and has built up a strong banking team, which includes heavy-hitters such as Alan Inglis, Mark Stewart and Citibank frontman James Johnson. Can he therefore afford to move from full-time banking, which, after all, is what makes Clifford Chance what it is?

Some see Popham as a natural foil to the bluff charms of Charlton; however, his identification with the firm’s finance practice may count against him.

John East

The Asia managing partner is the outsider. Although keen to return to the UK, some feel his recent track record may go against him: all that Mallesons Stephen Jaques business with the off-on merger talks and the collapse of the Singapore joint venture with Wong Partnership.

While he cannot be blamed directly – Lee Suet Fern’s departure from the Wong Partnership was beyond his control – it will cast a shadow over any pretentions East may have for the UK throne. And, as he is now in his 50s, his age may also go against him.

Mark Harding

There is a groundswell of support for banking and finance partner Harding. He has something a bit different to offer: although a Clifford Chance man through and through, he has experience of managing something other than a law firm. In 1996, he quit for the Union Bank of Switzerland (as UK and then European general counsel) and has sat on the boards of the UK Futures and Options Association and the International Swaps and Derivatives Association. He was chair of the latter from 1998 to 2000.

Harding only rejoined the firm in November last year so his nomination would be interesting – have the attractions of fee-earning already worn off?

There is also speculation internally that the German camp will put up a candidate, although Peter Nägele, Cornell’s fellow European managing partner, is apparently content with his lot for the time being.

It is still anybody’s race. Clifford Chance has something of a tradition of electing dark horses. Geoffrey Howe’s appointment as managing partner was a complete surprise back in the late 1980s, as was Tony Williams’ as managing partner in 1997.

But the smart money is still on a head-to-head between Charlton and Cornell, with Charlton appearing marginally ahead.

But as one senior figure says: “Standing and losing in these elections is a real gut-wrencher.” The two-horse race may yet win out.