FORUM/09.06.2008 He’s fun to talk with and plays with such self-assurance on his charm that you immediately feel comfortable in his company. Ib Kunøe, one of the most successful businessmen in Denmark, has agreed to an interview on a hot topic: women on the board of directors. Born in 1943, he got his management training as a military officer and established his personal fortune by starting up the consulting firm Mercuri Urval in a number of European countries. With a nose for buying cheap and selling high, there is no reason to suspect him of philanthropic motives or, for that matter, centre-left tendencies. When we meet at KVINFO’s offices, he has come straight from a meeting with the employees at a new business he has taken over that very day:
" I’m extremely good at holding soapbox speeches for the staff," is his opening comment. A new company is given a lot of attention for the first three months, and he is personally and visibly active in the field. He does not like the label ‘financier’. When a strategy is to be laid for the future of a newly-acquired business, he is the one sitting at the head of the table.
Behind the Danish Sigmund Freud Society
We talked about many things on the evening I sat next to Ib Kunøe during a birthday dinner party at my in-laws. That he wasn’t a completely typical representative of the business community really struck me when it popped up in conversation that he had taken the initiative to set up the Danish Sigmund Freud Society:
"But why not", he said, "there’s loads of psychology in the consulting business." Indeed, I thought, but it’s unlikely that many of Kunøe’s competitors have the same predilections. When conversation turned to his IT business in Norway, it was obvious to ask him about his experience of the Norwegian legal requirement as regards women on boards of directors. His direct response led me to ask if he might be prepared to say publicly what he had just told me in private.
So now here we are, and Ib Kunøe starts by confirming that his impression of the Norwegian legislation is extremely positive:
"I hadn’t thought about women on boards of directors until I came face to face with it for the first time in Norway. You’re suddenly aware of the difference when there’s one, then two and then three women on the board. And then you ask yourself: what it is exactly that they bring to the table?
I come from Consulting, with twenty subsidiaries, of which one third had or have had female managing directors. In our branch we deal with evaluating people and doing HR and organisation projects, and in that the girls are absolutely on a level with the men", says Ib Kunøe.
Women a plus at boards
Ementor is a large Norwegian IT company with an annual turnover of 14 billion Norwegian kroner:
"And that might, of course, just be a coincidence, but it’s gone extremely well", he says. "First we replaced a couple of board members, and then another woman joined, so in reality we’ve got fifty percent women on the board. And it’s no problem whatsoever. Women are easily as good at the job. And what’s more, they have a slightly different angle on things – remember things the rest of us forget. I really think it’s a strength that they have a different line of approach. Management isn’t just a question of doing the figures, there’s so much else to it – be it communication, be it personnel. Women are a bit better at thinking twice. They don’t necessarily feel obliged to have an instant opinion, and they don’t sit there competing with one another."
Denmark daft not to follow Norway
You don’t have to be a managing director to sit on a board
In the light of actual practice in Norway, Ib Kunøe thinks it is “daft not to get going here in Denmark”. He is more than aware of the arguments against. One of them is that it is makes no sense to insist on boards with forty percent women members when there are so few women in senior management.
"But you have to start somewhere, and it’s easier to start with the board of directors than with the management. You don’t have to be a managing director to sit on the board. You can have the one or the other specialist credentials, you can be a lawyer or a consultant. The problem in Norway has been whether or not there will be enough qualified women to fill the quota so quickly, but it’s turned out that there are enough women, so it evidently could be done," says Ib Kunøe.
Opposing legislation is a lost cause
In the case of Denmark, Ib Kunøe believes that it is much better to "go along with the opposition rather than resist the resistance." I ask him what he means by that?
He has no problem with legislation on the issue, “because politicians make laws about so many other things”. But he suggests that the requirement of female representation should only apply to companies quoted on the stock exchange and companies of a certain size. And, right away, the requirement should be made for female representation on all stock exchange listed boards. After a year, you can look to see how it is working out and then, after that, the requirement can gradually be increased to 25, 30 and perhaps 40%. Anyone continuing to oppose legislation risks, in Kunøe’s opinion, losing the battle, and then bang – they’ll be left with a requirement of 40% from the outset, which he is a bit sceptical about.
Fair representation only reasonable
He tells me that in Norway there are a number of areas, including election of directors, in which the corporate governance procedures are different to those here in Denmark. In Norway a selection committee proposes candidates for seats on the board:
"The job of the selection committee is to look at the composition of the board and make sure that the board is independent of the main shareholder, that the composition of the board is representative, that it covers the various business areas such as finance, sales/marketing, HR, the technical infrastructure and the whole thing seen in relation to the international markets. It’s the job of the selection committee to balance the various factors.
In addition, we have to ensure new blood on the board. And if we had the same system in Denmark, that would have meant goodbye to many of the old networks in many of the Danish companies on the stock exchange. In Norway it all takes place in a calm and collected manner. And if you point out that there’s got to be women on the board, then you do find suitable women. No problem. All in a calm and collected manner," says Ib Kunøe.
The big business organisations MUST take the stance that it is the companies that make the decisions – a capitalist system entails that it’s the shareholders who elect the board of directors. And yes, ultimately it is, but the selection committees are the ones that make the nominations.", he adds.
It’s not considerations of equality that guide Ib Kunøe’s deliberations, but given that over 50% of the population is female, his immediate reaction is that it is “totally absurd not to have fair representation”. The crucial issue is that of keeping and attracting qualified personnel. “For many reasons that’s expedient from a financial point of view, but it’s also a question of how the outside world sees your business. What’s the balance like in your business. Is there good sense and long-term prospects in what you’re doing," he says.
Gender difference is positive
"If you put a forty-five-year-old woman on a board of directors, you shouldn’t necessarily expect all sorts handed on a plate from day one. You can’t take that for granted. She’s come into a new business. But by taking her in we get a huge chance to train different types of people.
Women and men are different in a number of positive ways, and the point of a board is that it should not be made up exclusively of one type; it is there to identify the tough answers to many different questions. And a great many things are, of course, for the most part down to intelligence. And just look how girls are racing on in the education system.
I’ve got several women managing directors and they are loyal in a different way to the usual male mode. Women give a little more thought to a change of job. If a female director has been treated properly, then she’ll weigh it up just that once more even if she’s had another offer – security means a bit more, women are a little more circumspect, and that can make for a nice balance in the management team."
Coat of arms with balls
"Many of my brother marksmen at The Royal Shooting Society on the Sølyst estate have noticed the balls on my coat of arms [a decorative target designed by each member, see www.soelyst.dk . Eds.] My motto is: Vigor ingenium humanitas. Balls, Brain and Heart.
A decorative ‘coat of arms’ with balls. It is not an inverted heart, the left part clearly hangs down a little further. Vigor is energy, strength and stamina; ingenium is the power of thought; and humanitas stands for the heart:
If you haven’t got all three components then it will never amount to real leadership. There are situations in which you have to use more of one than of the other. But without any heart whatsoever then nothing works.
"Put a little more philosophically," says Ib Kunøe, "women have just as much to offer as men. They have just as much brain, they have perhaps a little more heart, but they haven’t been so accustomed to showing balls."
But that can be learnt, can it? I ask.
"I’ve seen loads of women with balls," answers Kunøe. "In terms of leadership, women are possibly a little more reticent, but when the chips are down I think actually women are a little tougher. If twelve sackings are necessary, then twelve will be sacked. But, like everything else, it’s a question of experience too."
In Ib Kunøe’s opinion there is no reason whatsoever for further delay. But it’s about understanding the opposite party and acting on that.
"If you start off with a requirement of 40% female representation, you can be certain the others will back out and dig their heels in. If, on the other hand, you insist on representation of women in all listed companies with the rider that if we don’t get a satisfactory voluntary result within a year then we’ll legislate, I think there will be support and understanding. And why shouldn’t it work in Denmark like it worked for me in Norway. That would be splendid. It’s problem solving, it’s common sense," concludes Ib Kunøe.
Translation: Gaye Kynoch
Facts on legislation in Norway:
In 2003 the Norwegian Parliament amended the Public Limited Companies Act to give public limited companies five years to ensure a 40% representation of women on their boards of directors, or else risk closure.
The requirement came into effect on January 1 2008. Now the Norwegian Government is considering extending the law to cover family-owned companies as well.
According to Statistics Norway, by February 2008, 39 % of the board representatives in public limited companies were women. In the late 1990's, the number was only 6%.
In Denmark, approx. 10% of board members are women:
See Facts on Gender Equality 2006
Read Catalyst report on women on boards as financially benefitial to business
Read Ministry of Gender Equality report: Do Women in Top Management Affect Firm Performance?