In Conversation with Ben Mathews: Thriving in Times of Adversity


4 min read

Ben Mathews took on the post of Group Company Secretary for BP in 2019 after serving for 6 years as a Group Company Secretary at HSBC. Before his time at HSBC, Ben was a Company Secretary for Rio Tinto and BG Group.

In his almost 20 years as a Company Secretary for FTSE10 companies, Ben Mathews has weathered more storms than most of us would like to face in our careers. From watching the Robert Maxwell scandal unravel at the beginning of his career at PwC, to joining HSBC midst bribery allegations, to rebuilding BP’s governance framework as the energy provider of the future — Ben has seen the good, the bad, and the ugly of corporate governance.

The evening we invited Ben to our London offices to talk to a group of his peers had seen share prices drop by nearly 20% as businesses and governments struggled to respond to the growing threat of COVID-19. Against the wider sense of calamity, the atmosphere in the room full of London’s promising company secretaries was one of hope and determination. It is, after all, in times of turbulence, uncertainty, and unprecedented change that governance professionals have an opportunity to show what they are made of. Discussing thriving in challenging times felt extremely timely.

Ben talked about the many storms most company secretaries must weather in their careers, about thriving in times of turmoil, about the role of the company secretary as a custodian of continuity and advocate for change, and about shaping BP’s transition from a traditional hydrocarbon business to a provider of the energy solutions of the future.

The company secretary as the custodian of continuity

“As a company secretary, you see it all.”

~ Ben Mathews

As a strategic advisor to the leadership team and the board, the company secretary is exposed to all aspects of a business and is involved in every critical transition and change of direction. In turbulent times, CEOs’ tenures tend to be shorter and most company secretaries see multiple CEOs come and go. Often, the company secretary is tasked with building the bridge between the new leadership and the board and serving as the link between the established and the new.

Serving as a point of stability and a source of knowledge about the way things are done will continue to be an important aspect of the role of the company secretary. However, increasingly, the company secretary’s role is to have their finger on the pulse of their organisation and the wider market and to herald the needed change.

The company secretary as the usher of change

“Companies have the responsibility to face up to the reality of environmental issues.”

~ Ben Mathews

There are heightened expectations for organisations to serve a purpose, protect the environment, and benefit society at large. The role of the company secretary is increasingly one of building new governance frameworks that support this important shift in thinking. Governance professionals are asked to think about how the mission of doing business for good translates into the ambitions, aims and organisational change needed to support it.

Many organisations are caught in a balancing act between doing the right thing and turning a profit. For understandable reasons, many have chosen to focus on the latter, but, as environmental and societal challenges intensify, businesses will simply not have the luxury of ignoring the impact of their actions and communicating the contribution they want to make. Organisations will increasingly be faced with the challenge of reconciling doing good and turning a positive return for investors.

BP’s new CEO, Bernard Looney, has tackled the issue of business for good head-on. Since stepping into the CEO role early this year following 30 years at BP, Looney has introduced BP’s ambition to become a net zero company by 2050 or sooner and is leading BP’s new mission of reimagining energy with compassion, humility, and with his own human voice.

The company secretary’s role in shaping the board’s agenda

“There shouldn’t be any mice in the room. We have a role to play. In the roles I’ve had, there has been an expectation that I contribute to the debate.”

~ Ben Mathews

Company secretaries are expected to be part of agenda shaping and to contribute to the important conversations companies should be having in preparation for the coming change.

When asked how he approaches his role in agenda shaping, Ben shared that there is a great opportunity for company secretaries to get involved early on in the process and to work with both the executive team and the board to shape the final agenda:

“Meticulous planning is a critical component of shaping the agenda of the board. Rather than presenting something at the board, I’ve tried to provide the board with an idea of what I’m thinking in good time that raises the right questions. Sharing your thinking even before you have arrived at a statement of facts is essential for starting a dialogue and working together to mature that thinking. Take on board the feedback and comments and reflections and do that again and again.”

~ Ben Mathews

Too little too late?

“We can’t keep kicking the problem down the road. We have to act now.”

~ Ben Mathews

In his speech on shaping the future of BP, Bernard Looney raised an important sentiment:

“It’s more than having to change, we want to change.”

~ Bernard Looney

Bernard Looney sees the challenges ahead as an opportunity to grow and as an opportunity for BP to demonstrate that it can be a force for good in the world. As more and more leaders join his thinking and more organisations express the desire to change for the better, the question will shift to “How?” How should leaders and boards go about implementing the change in thinking needed to prepare for tomorrow?

Ben’s message is simple:

“We need to be more open and honest in acknowledging the problems we face now. As Board agendas become more strategic, it is increasingly important to be sure that they are populated with people who have the right skills and experience and also bring diversity of thought.”

~ Ben Mathews

To have an organisation like BP be so forthright about its role in building a better future gives us hope. Seeing the opportunity in the challenges ahead is a powerful message for everyone to take away.

As our optimism is put to the test in the coming months and as the promises businesses make to society are being put under the microscope, governance professionals will have an increasingly important role in bridging the gap between yesterday and tomorrow.

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