ON WHATEVER side of the fence you sit, as either an outside observer or shareholder, in the corporate drama that is unfolding at cement producer PPC, we can all agree that the almost two-year tenure of Ketso Gordhan as CEO has been a rather eventful ride. For one, he has left a bloody trail in the 120-year-old company’s boardroom for someone else to mop up. And were the board to have backed him and axed the company’s chief financial officer, Tryphosa Ramano would have been his fourth scalp since Gordhan became CEO.

In the space of nine months and for reasons that vary from personal to strategic differences, the cement manufacturer lost three executives, including a chief operating officer and a business development director.

Were it not for the board’s resistance, Ramano would have also faced the firing squad.

Given the company’s struggles and indirection after the euphoria of the 2010 World Cup build, there was some merit in Gordhan’s reshuffling.

The market certainly seemed to welcome it, given the share’s appreciation in a construction sector that hasn’t been a favourite with fund managers for a number of years.

In the period he was CEO, from October 2012 to the last week of September this year, the share gained over 6%. Not much and only slightly better than the 5,6% achieved by the construction & materials index in that time. Since his departure, the stock has lost 5,3% in value.

So one can understand why, after realising that he had perhaps made a rash decision in quitting, Gordhan looked to shareholders for support.

This might come from Foord Asset Management, which aims to call for a special shareholders’ meeting to elect a new board, one that may just reinstate the former CEO.

But if he were to win this war and either be reappointed as CEO or ensure an entirely new board is appointed, I think there’ll be long-term damage to corporate governance in the private sector.

It would be a chance for Gordhan, who reduced his pay by R1-million to narrow the wage gap between himself and his lowest-paid worker, to reclaim his seat and continue his brand of responsible leadership.

But given how critical I was of African Bank’s board after the near collapse of that institution, blaming the entire body for kowtowing to its "charismatic" CEO, it would be hypocritical not to give the PPC board credit for doing the exact opposite.

After all, it’s a board that didn’t stand in the way of Gordhan’s Africa strategy — which impressed shareholders — nor did it voice any unhappiness about the remuneration changes he made (perhaps it did in the background).

And for most of the executive changes he made, they stood firmly behind him. It just seems that in this one case they decided to draw the line.

He lost the battle, but now with a key shareholder behind him, is hoping to win the war.

But if he were to win this war and either be reappointed as CEO or ensure an entirely new board is appointed, I think there’ll be long-term damage to corporate governance in the private sector.

Boards of state-owned enterprises such as SA Airways have long been criticised for being toothless and subservient to the whims of the sole shareholder, whose demands of late are based more on house politics than economic considerations.

Would it be any different in the private sector if Gordhan were to win this war? What would be the point of non executive board members, especially those with no skin in the game?

Enron’s lesson was that we need accountable, independent boards, able to raise the hard questions.

Perhaps the PPC board couldn’t do so and is in dire need of a shake-up, but at least they didn’t cower before one of SA’s better-regarded leaders.

To let Gordhan back in and elect an entirely new board and one of his choosing is a precedent that shouldn’t be set, no matter how great he may or may not be.

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