Unravelling the ties that connect and direct

MEET the man who may be the most influential person in corporate Australia.

An analysis of public company directorships shows that Lindsay Maxsted, a director with BHP Billiton, Transurban and Westpac, is capable of exercising a more powerful influence over the most common measure of Australia's corporate performance than any other person - and that by a fair whack.

Maxsted's positions give him board-level influence over companies valued at more than $182 billion. He takes part in decisions that change the course of more than 16 per cent of the total weight of the S&P/ASX200, the most-watched index of Australian shares.

The next most-influential person, fellow BHP board member Carolyn Hewson, holds sway over nearly 10 per cent of the index. She is also a board member at the building company Stockland.

The findings are part of a project carried out by the Herald to chart the networks and influences that direct - quite literally - our largest, most important companies. The primary outcome of the project is a map of board-level connections that tie the companies that comprise the 200 to one another. The map includes biographical information collated by Who's Who Australia and can be viewed at http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/blog/the-crunch.

Companies tend to be spoken of as if they were distinct identities, engaged in bitter rivalry and constant battle for a share of consumers' wallets. Our project makes plain that, in the effort to obtain the services of those with enough smarts and experience to engender trust, companies end up sharing personnel to a significant degree.

Of the 1539 directors on our list, 205 hold positions on multiple boards. Qantas director Garry Hounsell alone holds five - Nufarm, Orica, PanAust and DuluxGroup are the others - making him the person with the greatest number of board seats.

And if Hounsell is a hub through which many companies are tied, his influence is extended even further by the connections on his boards - particularly Qantas. Seven of the 15 directors at the notional ''national carrier'' hold additional seats within the top 200 companies.

Maxsted says it is easier than might be imagined for directors to compartmentalise their responsibilities from company to company. ''In each of those three roles there are very clear mandates for what I need to do,'' he said.

All of the connections depicted in our project are public, but that does not make them obvious or easy to track. Many of the most interesting connections that become plain are at one or two degrees of separation from any particular company, and these are connections that would not be explicit from company disclosures unless a reader were to pursue a particular director's associations from company to company, as we have done.

For example, BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto are the largest and second-largest companies listed on the ASX if measured by the total value of their shares. They are also, perhaps, the exchange's most prominent rivals.

Yet, they are connected at a single degree of separation - Rio director Richard Goodmanson shares the Qantas board with John Schubert, a BHP director.

As the benchmark index of Australian shares, the ASX 200, more than any other financial instrument, influences and describes the way the corporate universe is perceived. In the world's most powerful circles, the index is in effect a proxy for the country itself.

''Power'', according to the shareholders' rights advocate Dean Paatsch, ''is the ability to mobilise capital''. It is that assertion that leads us to conclude that Maxsted may be the most powerful person in Australia's pool of public company directors. He connects BHP to Westpac, where he also sits as a director.

A nexus of power can also be found surrounding the boardroom table at a much smaller corporate player: Tabcorp.

That board boasts a prodigious financial pedigree as it hosts one director from Commonwealth Bank (Jane Hemstritch) and another from ANZ (Paula Dwyer). Tabcorp director Elmer Funke Kupper also sits on the board of ASX Ltd, the company that operates the exchange itself, as that company's chief executive.

Tabcorp's board makes it possible to tie all four of the nation's largest banks within three degrees of separation. Westpac director Elizabeth Bryan sits on the Caltex board with National Australia Bank's John Thorn. NAB's Jillian Segal sits on the board of ASX Ltd with Tabcorp's Mr Kupper. Tabcorp links ANZ and Commonwealth Bank by hosting CBA's Hemstritch and ANZ's Dwyer, both on the one board.

The supermarket industry is similarly cosy. Coles and Woolworths are separated by a single company; infrastructure giant Lend Lease. Colin Carter, a director of Coles's owner, Wesfarmers, shares the Lend Lease board with the Woolworths director Michael Ullmer.

The network can be extended from Coles to Metcash, owner of the supermarket chain IGA, in one step: building materials company Boral. Both Wesfarmers' Bob Every and Metcash's Richard Longes sit on that board.

And to avoid suggestions of bias, it must be said that the board of media company Fairfax, the owner of this newspaper, is directly connected to Ten Network Holdings, with which we compete for online traffic.

Hungry Jack's founder Jack Cowin has been a director of Ten since 1998. He was appointed to Fairfax last month.

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