Thursday AM March 20th, 2008

The latest annual Houston Board Index from Spencer Stuart has been released, with statistics on the boards of Houston's 100 largest public companies. Tom Simmons with Spencer Stuart's Houston office says female representation on Houston boards, for example, remains about the same as last year.

"Ed, we are so energy-centric in the city of Houston that that by itself has been a long-time Good Old Boy network, as you know, in terms of male-dominated business. We've had great success in recent years of having some senior females come into that business. But it's still pretty much of a male-dominated industry these days. The diversity that we seek in board members continues to grow a little bit—not exponentially like we would like to see. But the pool of candidates for diversity—when we do a board search, we focus on diversity very highly in just about every circumstance. We look for diversity of ethnicity, we look for diversity of gender and we look for diversity of geography. And even though we work very hard in this area, the pool of diverse talent in Houston is not as great as it should be. When we do have a female, as an example, who rises to a very senior level and is qualified and interested in sitting on a board, because there's so many people looking for that diverse talent, they gravitate to much more bigger boards, typically. So the companies in Houston are trying to make good effort in this area, but we still have a ways to go, unfortunately."

Simmons says the time commitment to being a successful board member has increased significantly. He says this annual index is useful for tracking trends in the boardrooms of Houston.

"The independent nature of the board selection and then the board itself has really changed dramatically for the better in recent years. And I think this current presidential election might be interesting because if the Democrats are in power, they're kind of supporting and pushing some legislation that might do other things in the board room. One issue that we're pretty cognizant of is something called Save on Pay. And it's likely that if the democratic nominee is victorious next fall, you're gonna see some type of change where the shareholders themselves may have a direct voice in terms of what the CEO's compensation is going to be. The board compensation has stayed fairly static in recent years. It's up slightly—nothing out of the ordinary, relative to inflation or other comparisons. But I'd say that the change that is happening there is as we have seen CEO compensation, you still have stock options and a trend towards more restricted share units for performance purposes. Board members these days are also still getting some options for their part of their compensation but it's also more restricted shares than it has been in years past—putting them on the same boat, in the same camp, as the shareholders themselves."

Spencer Stuart is a headhunting firm that is hired by corporations to find senior executives.

FPL Energy will join Texas Christian and Oxford Universities on a five-year study of wind power's ecological and socio-economic impacts. The study will begin in the coming weeks in Texas. The project is expected to cost FPL Energy, which is a subsidiary of Florida-based FPL Group, more than $2 million. Research will cover a variety of topics, such as how the massive turbines and their spinning blades affect birds and bats. Experts will examine the extent wind energy, as an alternative to electricity generated by fossil fuels, helps reduce carbon emissions. The project also will study the aesthetic impact of wind farms--some of which include hundreds of turbines--and their effect on employment and taxes. Research will be coordinated by TCU's Institute for Environmental Studies and Oxford's Environmental Change Institute.

Investment banking giant Morgan Stanley is reporting better-than-expected first-quarter earnings. And its shares have been rising as investors react to the news. Strong results in its stock and bond-trading business helped to counter the negative impacts of the credit crunch. Like Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers, the results have helped Wall Street to recover from the gloom that resulted from the implosion of rival Bear Stearns. Morgan Stanley earned says it earned $1.53 billion after preferred dividends, down 42 percent from the year-ago period. It also reports write-downs of $2.3 billion--including $1.2 billion from mortgage-backed securities and $1.1 billion from loans.

Regulators in Washington have approved a rule banning exclusive apartment telephone service agreements. The move is expected to give tenants their pick of providers. The Federal Communications Commission says exclusive contracts between carriers and apartment-building owners hurt consumers and harm competition. It noted that the deals have also blocked residents from getting bundled voice, video and high-speed Internet service packages. The agency's order applies to both existing and future contracts in apartment buildings and other multiple tenant properties. Major carriers, including Verizon Communications and San Antonio-based AT&T, supported the agency's action. But housing and real estate groups say the FCC is overextending its regulatory reach.

Fairbanks is looking to Austin for inspiration on how to revitalize Alaska's second largest city. Austin is a city about the size of Anchorage. Austin is requiring new stores to follow higher-quality architectural features than were allowed a few years ago. A subcommittee wanting to give the Fairbanks downtown a facelift is looking at Austin's design guidelines as a potential model. The Vision Fairbanks Project is taking a look at Austin's road system and parking layout, its zoning maps, public bus lines, sidewalks and other bits and pieces. The plan, to be released in the next few weeks, focuses on reworking or building key pieces of public infrastructure.

Arkansas' attorney general has moved to shut down payday lending companies in his state. Dustin McDaniel says the fees they charge harm the working poor and violate the state constitution's ban on high-interest loans. McDaniel says his office has sent letters to about 60 companies that run payday lending services, asking them to shut down immediately and void customers' debts or face the likelihood of lawsuits. McDaniel based his actions on opinions issued last month by the state supreme court. He said they make it clear that the high interest rates charged by payday lenders violate the state constitution and the Arkansas Deceptive Trade Practices Act. The Arkansas constitution has an unusual provision that bars lenders from charging an annual interest rate higher than 17 percent.

It's a kind of rebate being offered to buyers of HD-DVD players, who now realize their technology has lost in the format war. Best Buy says it will give gift cards to buyers of HD-DVD players or HD-DVD attachments from its U.S. stores as the format goes away in favor of Blu-Ray. The products had to be purchased at one of the company's stores before February 23rd. Best Buy will give a $50 gift card for each item, expected to total more than $10 million. The retailer will look for those customers through its Reward Zone program, performance service plans and through online purchases and will mail out the gift cards to those customers before May. Customers who feel they won't be found can call the company to provide proof of purchase. Best Buy also says customers who want to get rid of their HD-DVD players can do so by visiting their online trade-in center beginning on Friday. Rival Circuit City stores pledges to accept returns of HD-DVD players within 90 days of purchase. The HD-DVD players can be returned for store credit.


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