Technology and the role of company secretaries: in a chat with Venessa Denny

This week we chatted with Venessa Denny from A2Dominion, who has a wealth of governance experience in the not-for-profit and property management sector.

Please tell us about yourself.

I’m an Assistant Company Secretary for residential property group A2Dominion. We have more than 37,000 properties spanning social and affordable housing, shared ownership, private rent and sale, supported housing for vulnerable people, as well as ever-expanding community and social investment projects. My remit is vast and diverse as the various entities have very different stakeholders, including boards, shareholders, our customers, and community groups.

I started my career in the not-for-profit and community sector, covering issues such as housing, community empowerment, regulation and governance.

My commitment to my field is reflected by a range of voluntary roles. I was the Company Secretary at Inspirational YOU, who support individuals, micro and small company start-ups to become full and thriving businesses. I have also mentored entrepreneurs and sourced over £500,000 for community projects and consortiums within the London Borough of Lambeth. I have also been a School Governor, and served as the Secretariat for the All Party Parliamentary Group on the British Caribbean.

In my spare time I am Trustee of my local church, mentor for young people and the Treasurer for the Association of Woman Chartered Secretaries (AWCS). I also work with not-for-profit groups and third sector organisations demystifying what governance means, and helping them understand the impact that good and bad governance can have on their organisation and strategy.

Over recent years, how have changing regulatory environments impacted the work effort required in company secretarial functions (e.g. GDPR)?

The changing regulatory environment has significantly increased the scope, expectations and demand on company secretarial functions. There has been more exposure and reliance on governance directorates as centres of expertise as well as a marked shift from being traditional back-office functions to a future-focused department.

As the Company Secretariat ensures regulatory compliance, the changing regulatory environment has reinforced our positions as subject matter experts. This means we’re seeing a growing need for people with specialist knowledge in areas like GDPR to keep up with the rate of change.

For example, the Modern Slavery Reporting regulation seeks to ensure transparency and the elimination of modern slavery in the supply chain. I am the responsible person who needs to hold our staff accountable, consult with people to gather and provide information, and keep the Executive Management Team informed.

There has also been more scrutiny, and a greater need for transparency and the skills to mitigate reputational risk.

Do you think that board members fully understand the company secretary's role?

I think most board members are aware of the role, however they might not understand the journey of becoming a company secretary and what the role fully encompasses. Board members rely on company secretaries for support to ensure they fulfil their statutory duties, however may not be aware of the role as an influencer, advisor and custodian within the organisation.

Within the not-for-profit sector, board members may have a knowledge of how private companies work and may not fully appreciate the extent to which the company secretary operates from a custodian perspective. This means we are mandated and held to account by the regulator to protect the assets of the organisation for the use of the community or wider society rather than simply having the aim of seeking a financial profit.

How do you think emerging technologies such as AI and blockchain will impact your role (and all of other governance professionals) in the future?

I think new technology will have a positive impact on the role. Things like getting electronic signatures rather than waiting for signatories to sign in person, or capturing accurate minutes and actions digitally so less time is spent typing them up, and members receive them sooner. AI could allow tasks, such as pre-populating electronic calendars with reminder dates, and automated filing.

With less human intervention in these tasks, it gives us time to become better subject matter experts and engage with the Directors on elements such as strategy or implementing changes.

I was really struck by Jimmy Choo's UK's first fully electronic AGM, mentioned on the Equiniti website. I think this is something that the sector responded positively to. They saw greater participation and shareholder engagement, regardless of location, and a decrease in Carbon Footprint - wins all around.

What do think is the main barrier to good corporate governance in non-for-profit organisations?

I think the main barrier is corporate partners understanding how we operate. The sector works in partnership with private companies to pool money, resources, expertises and share risk.

Organisations in the sector have certain allowances and recourse to public funds, but must also balance social and commercial value. We are heavily regulated and scrutinised, so are more stringent in our processes, procedures and continual drive for transparency. I suspect that, as a sector, we might be seen as slightly pedantic in our approach and this can sometimes create tensions if not managed properly.

There's a lot of talk around diversity in the boardroom, also beyond gender. What are your thoughts on this?

I think that the boardroom needs to be diverse both with regard to improving the appointments of under-represented groups and to diversity of thought.

When organisations are open to looking at diversity differently it provides the opportunity to delve into what matters such as: is this individual aware of the balance of social and commercial value? Do their insights inform future strategy?

I would like to see the sector engaging individuals with knowledge and experience of the needs, aspirations and concerns of customers and communities served by the organisation. This means the Board may need younger people, people that are traditionally underrepresented or service users.

Diversity must be more than a tick-box exercise. Our marker of excellence has to be reflected in our hiring and promotion practices and who is making the decisions at the top of our organisations.