Carillion’s business model was an unsustainable dash for cash. The mystery is not that it collapsed, but how it kept going for so long. Carillion’s acquisitions lacked a coherent strategy beyond removing competitors from the market, yet failed to generate higher margins. Purchases were funded through rising debt and stored up pensions problems for the future. Similarly, expansions into overseas markets were driven by optimism rather than any strategic expertise. Carillion’s directors blamed a few rogue contracts in alien business environments, such as with Msheireb Properties in Qatar, for the company’s demise. But if they had had their way, they would have won 13 contracts in that country. The truth is that, in acquisitions, debt and international expansion, Carillion became increasingly reckless in the pursuit of growth. In doing so, it had scant regard for long-term sustainability or the impact on employees, pensioners and suppliers.
The perception of Carillion as a healthy and successful company was in no small part due to its directors’ determination to increase the dividend paid each year, come what may. Amid a jutting mountain range of volatile financial performance charts, dividend payments stand out as a generous, reliable and steady incline. In the company’s final years, directors rewarded themselves and other shareholders by choosing to pay out more in dividends than the company generated in cash, despite increased borrowing, low levels of investment and a growing pension deficit. Active investors have expressed surprise and disappointment that Carillion’s directors chose short-term gains over the long-term sustainability of the company. We too can find no justification for this reckless approach.
Honouring pension obligations over decades to come was of little interest to a myopic board who thought of little beyond their next market statement. Their cash-chasing acquisitions policy meant they acquired pension scheme deficits alongside companies. Their proposals for funding those deficits were consistently and resolutely derisory as they blamed financial constraints unrecognisable from their optimistic market announcements. Meeting the pension promises they had made to their rank and file staff was far down their list of priorities. This outlook was epitomised by Richard Adam who, as Finance Director, considered funding the pension schemes a “waste of money”.
Carillion relied on its suppliers to provide materials, services and support across its contracts, but treated them with contempt. Late payments, the routine quibbling of invoices, and extended delays across reporting periods were company policy. Carillion was a signatory of the Government’s Prompt Payment Code, but its standard payment terms were an extraordinary 120 days. Suppliers could be paid in 45 days, but had to take a cut for the privilege. This arrangement opened a line of credit for Carillion, which it used systematically to shore up its fragile balance sheet, without a care for the balance sheets of its suppliers.
Corporate culture does not emerge overnight. The chronic lack of accountability and professionalism now evident in Carillion’s governance were failures years in the making. The board was either negligently ignorant of the rotten culture at Carillion or complicit in it.
Richard Howson, Carillion’s Chief Executive from 2012 until July 2017, was the figurehead for a business model that was doomed to fail. As the leader of the company, he may have been confident of his abilities and of the success of the company, but under him it careered progressively out of control. His misguided self-assurance obscured an apparent lack of interest in, or understanding of, essential detail, or any recognition that Carillion was a business crying out for challenge and reform. Right to the end, he remained confident that he could have saved the company had the board not finally decided to remove him. Instead, Mr Howson should accept that, as the longstanding leader who took Carillion to the brink, he was part of the problem rather than part of the solution.
Keith Cochrane was an inside appointment as interim Chief Executive, having served as a non-executive on the board that exhibited little challenge or insight. He was unable to convince investors of his ability to lead and rebuild the company. Action to appoint new leadership from outside Carillion came far too late to have any chance of saving the company.
Non-executives are there to scrutinise executive management. They have a particularly vital role in challenging risk management and strategy and should act as a bulwark against reckless executives. Carillion’s NEDs were, however, unable to provide any remotely convincing evidence of their effective impact.
Philip Green was Carillion’s Chairman from 2014 until its liquidation. He interpreted his role as to be an unquestioning optimist, an outlook he maintained in a delusional, upbeat assessment of the company’s prospects only days before it began its public decline. While the company’s senior executives were fired, Mr Green continued to insist that he was the man to lead a turnaround of the company as head of a “new leadership team”. Mr Green told us he accepted responsibility for the consequences of Carillion’s collapse, but that it was not for him to assign culpability. As leader of the board he was both responsible and culpable.
In the years leading up to the company’s collapse, Carillion’s remuneration committee paid substantially higher salaries and bonuses to senior staff while financial performance declined. It was the opposite of payment by results. Only months before the company was forced to admit it was in crisis, the RemCo was attempting to give executives the chance for bigger bonuses, abandoned only after pressure from institutional investors. As the company collapsed, the RemCo’s priority was salary boosts and extra payments to senior leaders in the hope they wouldn’t flee the company, continuing to ensure those at the top of Carillion would suffer less from its collapse than the workers and other stakeholders to whom they had responsibility.
Nowhere was the remuneration committee’s lack of challenge more apparent than in its weak approach to how bonuses could be clawed back in the event of corporate failures. Not only were the company paying bonuses for poor performance, they made sure they couldn’t be taken back, feathering the nests of their colleagues on the board. The clawback terms agreed in 2015 were so narrow they ruled out a penny being returned, even when the massive failures that led to the £845 million write-down were revealed. In September 2017, the remuneration committee briefly considered asking directors to return their bonuses, but in the system they built such a move was unenforceable. If they were unable to make a legal case, it is deeply regrettable that they did not seek to make the moral case for their return. There is merit in Government and regulators considering a minimum standard for bonus clawback for all public companies, to promote long-term accountability.
A non-executive director and chair of Carillion’s remuneration committee for four years, Alison Horner presided over growing salaries and bonuses at the top of the company as its performance faltered. In her evidence to us, she sought to justify her approach by pointing to industry standards, the guidance of advisors, and conversations with shareholders. She failed to demonstrate to us any sense of challenge to the advice she was given, any concern about the views of stakeholders, or any regret at the largesse at the top of Carillion. Ms Horner continues to hold the role of Chief People Officer of Tesco, where she has responsibilities to more than half a million employees. We hope that, in that post, she will reflect on the lessons learned from Carillion and her role in its collapse.
The Carillion board have maintained that the £845 million provision made in 2017 was the unfortunate result of sudden deteriorations in key contracts between March and June that year. Such an argument might hold some sway if it was restricted to one or two main contracts. But their audit committee papers show that at least 18 different contracts had provisions made against them. Problems of this size and scale do not form overnight. A November 2016 internal peer review of Carillion’s Royal Liverpool Hospital contract reported it was making a loss. Carillion’s management overrode that assessment and insisted on a healthy profit margin being assumed in the 2016 accounts. The difference between those two assessments was around £53 million, the same loss included for the hospital contract in the July 2017 profit warning.
Carillion used aggressive accounting policies to present a rosy picture to the markets. Maintaining stated contract margins in the face of evidence that showed they were optimistic, and accounting for revenue for work that not even been agreed, enabled it to maintain apparently healthy revenue flows. It used its early payment facility for suppliers as a credit card, but did not account for it as borrowing. The only cash supporting its profits was that banked by denying money to suppliers. Whether or not all this was within the letter of accountancy law, it was intended to deceive lenders and investors. It was also entirely unsustainable: eventually, Carillion would need to get the cash in.
Emma Mercer is the only Carillion director to emerge from the collapse with any credit. She demonstrated a willingness to speak the truth and challenge the status quo, fundamental qualities in a director that were not evident in any of her colleagues. Her individual actions should be taken into account by official investigations of the collapse of the company. We hope that her association with Carillion does not unfairly colour her future career.
Zafar Khan failed to get a grip on Carillion’s aggressive accounting policies or make any progress in reducing the company’s debt. He took on the role of Finance Director when the company was already in deep trouble, but he should not be absolved of responsibility. He signed off the 2016 accounts that presented an extraordinarily optimistic view of the company’s health, and were soon exposed as such.
Richard Adam, as Finance Director between 2007 and 2016, was the architect of Carillion’s aggressive accounting policies. He, more than anyone else, would have been aware of the unsustainability of the company’s approach. His voluntary departure at the end of 2016 was, for him, perfectly timed. He then sold all his Carillion shares for £776,000 just before the wheels began very publicly coming off and their value plummeted. These were the actions of a man who knew exactly where the company was heading once it was no longer propped up by his accounting tricks.
Carillion’s directors, both executive and non-executive, were optimistic until the very end of the company. They had built a culture of ever-growing reward behind the façade of an ever-growing company, focused on their personal profit and success. Even after the company became insolvent, directors seemed surprised the business had not survived.
Once the business had completely collapsed, Carillion’s directors sought to blame everyone but themselves for the destruction they caused. Their expressions of regret offer no comfort for employees, former employees and suppliers who have suffered because of their failure of leadership.
External checks and balances
Major investors in Carillion were unable to exercise sufficient influence on the board to change its direction of travel. For this the board itself must shoulder most responsibility. They failed to publish the trustworthy information necessary for investors who relied on public statements to assess the strength of the company. Investors who sought to discuss their concerns about management failings with the board were met with unconvincing and incompetent responses. Investors were left with little option other than to divest.
It is not surprising that the board failed to attract the large injection of capital required from investors; we are aware of only one who even considered this possibility. In the absence of strong incentives to intervene, institutional investors acted in a rational manner, based on the information they had available to them. Resistance to an increase in bonus opportunities, regrettably, did not extend to direct challenges to board members. Carillion may have held on to investors temporarily by presenting its financial situation in an unrealistically rosy hue; had it been more receptive to the advice of key investors at an earlier stage it may have been able to avert the darkening clouds that subsequently presaged its collapse.
KPMG audited Carillion for 19 years, pocketing £29 million in the process. Not once during that time did they qualify their audit opinion on the financial statements, instead signing off the figures put in front of them by the company’s directors. Yet, had KPMG been prepared to challenge management, the warning signs were there in highly questionable assumptions about construction contract revenue and the intangible asset of goodwill accumulated in historic acquisitions. These assumptions were fundamental to the picture of corporate health presented in audited annual accounts. In failing to exercise—and voice—professional scepticism towards Carillion’s aggressive accounting judgements, KPMG was complicit in them. It should take its own share of responsibility for the consequences.
Deloitte were responsible for advising Carillion’s board on risk management and financial controls, failings in the business that proved terminal. Deloitte were either unable to identify effectively to the board the risks associated with their business practices, unwilling to do so, or too readily ignored them.
Carillion’s directors were supported by an array of illustrious advisory firms. Names such as Slaughter and May, Lazard, Morgan Stanley and EY were brandished by the board as a badge of credibility. But the appearance of prominent advisors proves nothing other than the willingness of the board to throw money at a problem and the willingness of advisory firms to accept generous fees.
Advisory firms are not incentivised to act as a check on recklessly run businesses. A long and lucrative relationship is not secured by unduly rocking the boat. As Carillion unravelled, some firms gave unwelcome advice. Morgan Stanley explained that the opportunity to raise equity to keep the company afloat had passed. Carillion simply marginalised them and sought a second opinion. By the end, a whole suite of advisors, including an array of law firms, were squeezing fee income out of what remained of the company. £6.4 million disappeared on the last working day alone as the directors pleaded for a taxpayer bailout. Chief among the beneficiaries was EY, paid £10.8 million for its six months of failed turnaround advice as Carillion moved inexorably towards collapse.
The pension trustees were outgunned in negotiations with directors intent on paying as little as possible into the pension schemes. Largely powerless, they took a conciliatory approach with a sponsor who was their only hope of additional money and, for some of them, their own employer. When it was clear that the company was refusing to budge an inch, they turned to the Pensions Regulator to intervene.
The Pensions Regulator’s feeble response to the underfunding of Carillion’s pension schemes was a threat to impose a contribution schedule, a power it had never—and has still never—used. The Regulator congratulated itself on a final agreement which was exactly what the company asked for the first few years and only incorporated a small uptick in recovery plan contributions after the next negotiation was due. In reality, this intervention only served to highlight to both sides quite how unequal the contest would continue to be.
The Pensions Regulator failed in all its objectives regarding the Carillion pension scheme. Scheme members will receive reduced pensions. The Pension Protection Fund and its levy payers will pick up their biggest bill ever. Any growth in the company that resulted from scrimping on pension contributions can hardly be described as sustainable. Carillion was run so irresponsibly that its pension schemes may well have ended up in the PPF regardless, but the Regulator should not be spared blame for allowing years of underfunding by the company. Carillion collapsed with net pension liabilities of around £2.6 billion and little prospect of anything being salvaged from the wreckage to offset them. Without any sense of irony, the Regulator chose this moment to launch an investigation to see if Carillion should contribute more money to its schemes. No action now by TPR will in any way protect pensioners from being consigned to the PPF.
While we welcome the swift announcement of investigations into the audit of Carillion and the conduct of the Finance Directors responsible for the accounts, we have little faith in the ability of the FRC to complete important investigations in a timely manner. We recommend changes to ensure that all directors who exert influence over financial statements can be investigated and punished as part of the same investigation, not just those with accounting qualifications.
The FRC was far too passive in relation to Carillion’s financial reporting. It should have followed up its identification of several failings in Carillion’s 2015 accounts with subsequent monitoring. Its limited intervention in July 2017 clearly failed to deter the company in persisting with its over-optimistic presentation of financial information. The FRC was instead happy to walk away after securing box-ticking disclosures of information. It was timid in challenging Carillion on the inadequate and questionable nature of the financial information it provided and wholly ineffective in taking to task the auditors who had responsibility for ensuring their veracity.
The assignment of a Crown Representative to Carillion served no noticeable purpose in alerting the Government to potential issues in advance of company’s July 2017 profit warning. The absence of one between August and November 2017 cannot have increased the Government’s ability to keep itself informed of the direction of the company during a critical period before its collapse.
In his last-minute ransom note, Philip Green clearly hoped that, faced with the imminent collapse of Carillion, Government would conclude it was too big to fail. But the Government was correct not to bail out Carillion. Taxpayer money should not be used to prop up companies run by such negligent directors. When a company holds 450 contracts with the Government, however, its collapse will inevitably have a significant knock-on effects for the public purse. It is simply not possible to transfer all the risk from the public to the private sector. There is little chance that the £150 million of taxpayer money made available to support the insolvency will be fully recovered.
The Official Receiver agreed to support compulsory liquidation, and sought the appointment of Special Managers, in the best interests of the taxpayer and has sought to achieve the best possible outcome for employees, suppliers and other creditors.
In applying to the Court to appoint PwC as Special Managers to the insolvency, the Official Receiver was seeking to resource a liquidation of exceptional size and complexity as quickly and effectively as possible from an extremely limited pool.
We are concerned that the decision by the court not to set any clear remuneration terms for PwC’s appointment as Special Managers, and the inability of the appointees to give any indication of the scale of the liquidation, displays a lack of oversight. We have seen no reliable estimates of the full administrative costs of the liquidation, and no evidence that Special Managers, the Official Receiver or the Government have made any attempt to calculate it. We have also seen no measures of success or accountability by which the Special Managers are being judged.
As advisors to Government and Carillion before its collapse, and as Special Managers after, PwC benefited regardless of the fate of the company. Without measurable targets and transparent costs, PwC are continuing to gain from Carillion, effectively writing their own pay cheque, without adequate scrutiny. When the Official Receiver requires the support of Special Managers, these companies must not be given a blank cheque. In the interests of taxpayers and creditors, the Insolvency Service should set and regularly review spending and performance criteria and provide full transparency on costs incurred and expected future expense.
Given that, as far as we know, no indications had been given that a bailout would be forthcoming, and that the board apparently took no steps to minimise the potential loss to creditors, there must at least be a question as to whether individual directors could reasonably be accused of wrongful trading.
In evidence to us, Carillion’s board members did not give the impression that they were acutely conscious of the wide range of legal duties they had, nor of the prospect of any penalties arising from failure in this regard. It is difficult to conclude that they adequately took into account the interests of employees, their relationships with suppliers and customers, the need for high standards of conduct, or the long-term sustainability of the company as a whole. Any deterrent effects provided by section 172 of the Companies Act 2006 were in this case insufficient to affect the behaviourof directors when the company had a chance of survival. We recommend that the Insolvency Service, as part of its investigation into the conduct of former directors of Carillion, includes careful consideration of potential breaches of duties under the Companies Act as part of their assessment of whether to take action for those breaches or to recommend to the Secretary of State action for disqualification as a director.
The consequences of the collapse of Carillion are a familiar story. The company’s employees, its suppliers, and their employees face at best an uncertain future. Pension scheme members will see their entitlements cut, their reduced pensions subsidised by levies on other pension schemes. Shareholders, deceived by public pronouncements of health, have lost their investments. The faltering reputation of business in the eyes of the public has taken another hit, to the dismay of business leaders. Meanwhile, the taxpayer is footing the bill for ensuring that essential public services continue to operate. But this sorry tale is not without winners. Carillion’s directors took huge salaries and bonuses which, for all their professed contrition in evidence before us, they show no sign of relinquishing. The panoply of auditors and other advisors who looked the other way or who were offered an opportunity for consultancy fees from a floundering company have been richly compensated. In some cases, they continue to profit from Carillion after its death. Carillion was not just a failure of a company; it was a failure of a system of corporate accountability which too often leaves those responsible at the top—and the ever-present firms that surround them—as winners, while everyone else loses out.
We recommend that the Government immediately reviews the role and responsibilities of its Crown Representatives in the light of the Carillion case. This review should consider whether devoting more resources to liaison with strategic suppliers would offer better value for the taxpayer.
The current Stewardship Code is insufficiently detailed to be effective and, as it exists on a comply or explain basis, completely unenforceable. It needs some teeth. Proposals for greater reporting and transparency in terms of investor engagement and voting records are very welcome and should be taken forward speedily. However, given the incentives governing shareholder behaviour, and the questionable quality of the financial information available to them, we are not convinced that these measures in themselves will be effective in improving engagement, still less in shifting incentives towards long-term investment and away from the focus on dividend delivery. A more active and interventionist approach is needed in the forthcoming revision of the Stewardship Code, including a more visible role for the regulators, principally the Financial Reporting Council.
The case of Carillion emphasised that the answer to the failings of pensions regulation is not simply new powers. The Pensions Regulator, and ultimately pensioners, would benefit from far harsher sanctions on sponsors who knowingly avoid their pension responsibilities through corporate transactions. But Carillion’s pension schemes were not dumped as part of a sudden company sale; they were underfunded over an extended period in full view of TPR. TPR saw the wholly inadequate recovery plans and had the opportunity to impose a more appropriate schedule of contributions while the company was still solvent. Though it warned Carillion that it was prepared to do, it did not follow through with this ultimately hollow threat. TPR’s bluff has been called too many times. It has said it will be quicker, bolder and more proactive. It certainly needs to be. But this will require substantial cultural change in an organisation where a tentative and apologetic approach is ingrained. We are far from convinced that TPR’s current leadership is equipped to effect that change.
This case is a test of the regulatory system. The Carillion collapse has exposed the toothlessness of the Financial Reporting Council and its reluctance to use aggressively the powers that it does have. There are four different regulators engaged, potentially pursuing action against different directors for related failings in discharging their duties. We have no confidence in the ability of these regulators, even with a new Memorandum of Understanding, to work together in a joined-up, rapid and coherent manner, to apportion blame and impose sanctions in high profile cases.
At present, the mindset of the FRC is to be content with apportioning blame once disaster has struck rather than to proactively challenge companies and flag issues of concern to avert avoidable business failures in the first place. We welcome the Government’s review of the FRC’s powers and effectiveness. We believe that the Government should provide the FRC with the necessary powers to be a much more aggressive and proactive regulator: one that can publicly question companies about dubious reporting, investigate allegations of poor practice from whistle-blowers and others, and can, through the judicious exercise of new powers, provide a sufficient deterrent against poor boardroom behaviour to drive up confidence in UK business standards over the long term. Such an approach will require a significant shift in culture at the FRC itself.
The market for auditing major companies is neatly divvied up among the Big Four firms. It has long been thus and the prospect of an entrant firm or other competition shaking up that established order is becoming ever more distant. KPMG’s long and complacent tenure auditing Carillion was not an isolated failure. It was symptomatic of a market which works for the members of the oligopoly but fails the wider economy. Waiting for a more competitive market that promotes quality and trust in audits has failed. It is time for a radically different approach.
The lack of meaningful competition creates conflicts of interest at every turn. In the case of Carillion, KPMG were external auditors, Deloitte were internal auditors and EY were tasked with turning the company around. Though PwC had variously advised the company, its pension schemes and the Government on Carillion contracts, it was the least conflicted of the Four. As the Official Receiver searched for a company to take on the job of Special Manager in the insolvency, the oligopoly had become a monopoly and PwC could name its price. The economy needs a competitive market for audit and professional services which engenders trust. Carillion betrayed the market’s current state as a cosy club incapable of providing the degree of independent challenge needed.
We recommend that the Government refers the statutory audit market to the Competition and Markets Authority. The terms of reference of that review should explicitly include consideration of both breaking up the Big Four into more audit firms, and detaching audit arms from those providing other professional services.
The collapse of Carillion has tested the adequacy of the system of checks and balances on corporate conduct. It has clearly exposed serious flaws, some well-known, some new. In tracing these, key themes emerge. We have no confidence in our regulators. FRC and TPR share a passive, reactive mindset and are too timid to make effective use of the powers they have. They do not seek to influence corporate decision-making with the realistic threat of intervention. The steps they are beginning to take now, and extra powers they may receive, will have little impact unless they are accompanied by a change of culture and outlook. That is what the Government should seek to achieve.
The Government has recognised the weaknesses in the regulatory regimes exposed by Carillion and other corporate failures, but its responses have been cautious, largely technical, and characterised by seemingly endless consultation. Our select committees have offered firm and bold recommendations based on exhaustive and compelling evidence but the Government has lacked the decisiveness or bravery to pursue measures that could make a significant difference, whether to defined benefit pension schemes, shareholder engagement, corporate governance or insolvency law. That must change. Other measures that the Government has taken to improve the business environment, such as the Prompt Payment Code, have proved wholly ineffective in protecting small suppliers from an aggressive company and need revisiting.
The directors of Carillion, not the Government, are responsible for the collapse of the company and its consequences. The Government has done a competent job in clearing up the mess. But successive Governments have nurtured a business environment and pursued a model of service delivery which made such a collapse, if not inevitable, then at least a distinct possibility. The Government’s drive for cost savings can itself come at a price: the cheapest bid is not always the best. Yet companies have danced to the Government’s tune, focussing on delivering on price, not service; volume not value. In these circumstances, when swathes of public services are affected, close monitoring of exposure to risks would seem essential. Yet we have a semi-professional part-time system that does not provide the necessary degree of insight for Government to manage risks around service provision and company behaviour. The consequences of this are clear in the taxpayer being left to foot so much of the bill for the Carillion clean-up operation.
Other issues raised are deep-seated and need much more work. The right alignment of incentives in the investment chain is a fiendishly difficult balance to strike. The economic system is predicated on strong investor engagement, yet the mechanisms and incentives to support engagement are weak and possibly weakening. The audit profession is in danger of suffering a crisis in confidence. The FRC and others have their work cut out to restore trust in the value, purpose and conduct of audits. Competition has the potential to drive improvements in quality and accountability, but it is currently severely lacking in a market carved up by four entrenched professional services giants. There are no easy solutions, but there are some bold ones.
Carillion was the most spectacular corporate collapse for some time. The price will be high, in jobs, businesses, trust and reputation. Most companies are not run with Carillion’s reckless short-termism, and most company directors are far more concerned by the wider consequences of their actions than the Carillion board. But that should not obscure the fact that Carillion became a giant and unsustainable corporate time bomb in a regulatory and legal environment still in existence today. The individuals who failed in their responsibilities, in running Carillion and in challenging, advising or regulating it, were often acting entirely in line with their personal incentives. Carillion could happen again, and soon. Rather than a source of despair, that can be an opportunity. The Government can grasp the initiative with an ambitious and wide-ranging set of reforms that reset our systems of corporate accountability in the long-term public interest. It would have our support in doing so.