Nortel’s Owens Never Bores of Boards

There are few things more vexing than missing an obvious and easy “get”. I spoke on various media outlets this week about Nortel Networks’ continuing troubles, and I didn’t check into something that I should have: How many boards does new Nortel CEO Bill Owens sit on?

After all, playing CEO at the troubled Canadian telecommunications equipment maker will be a (very) full-time job. To the extent that he is messing about with other boards … well, let’s just say it dilutes his effectiveness.

Anyway, the Financial Times did the right thing yesterday and scanned Nortel’s 14A filing from last March. The answer? At that time Owens served on 12 boards — 13, if you include Nortel. Here they are: BioLase Technology, Inc., British American Tobacco plc, Cray Inc., Daimler-Chrysler, Extend America Inc., Lumera Corporation, Metal Storm Limited, Microvision, Inc., Polycom, Inc., Symantec Corporation, TIBCO Software Inc., Telstra Corporation Limited, and ViaSat, Inc.

This raises two issues. First, Owens must resign from most of these boards, as he’ll be hard-pressed to justify serving on more than one board in addition to his Nortel CEO seat.

Second, and more importantly, it shows a dubious instinct for corporate governance for Owen to serve on so many boards. A common rule of thumb is that even professional directors should serve on no more than six or seven boards. You just can’t keep track of what’s going on. But thirteen boards … well, that’s at least twenty or thirty board meetings a year, plus innumerable conference calls. And all of that across a wide range of industries, from technology to tobacco.

In other words, for Owens to serve on 13 boards and then come swanning into Nortel as some corporate governance proponent sure looks like another misadventure in a long series of same from Nortel.