An elite web of influence connects some of the fiercest corporate rivals.
LINDSAY Maxsted may be the most influential person in corporate Australia.
An analysis of public company directorships shows that Mr 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.
Mr 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/ASX 200 Index, 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 developer Stockland.
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 www.theage.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.
Incongruously, company boards tend to be spoken of as clubs, membership to which is reserved for an elite few who spend their careers flipping from one boardroom to the next.
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 Mr Hounsell is a hub through which many companies are tied, his influence extends 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.
Mr 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 says.
However, he says it was invaluable to take lessons learnt in particular contexts and apply them elsewhere.
For example, he says he did not go to BHP to learn about China, but the knowledge is invaluable in his role at Westpac.
All the connections depicted in our project are public, but that does not make them obvious.
Many of the most interesting connections are at one or two degrees of separation from any particular company.
For example, BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto are the first- 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. Our map shows Rio director Richard Goodmanson is on the Qantas board with John Schubert, a BHP director.
As the benchmark index of Australian shares, the S&P/ASX200 Index, more than any other financial instrument, influences and describes the way the Australian corporate universe is perceived.
''Power,'' according to shareholders' rights advocate Dean Paatsch, ''is the ability to mobilise capital.'' It is that assertion that leads us to conclude that Mr Maxsted may be the most powerful in Australia's pool of public company directors.
Mr Maxsted connects BHP to Westpac, where he also sits as a director.
Companies are ''weighted'' within the S&P/ASX200 Index, and their shares influence the performance of the index depending on that weighting. BHP and Westpac are the first- and third-most influential companies on the list, carrying more than 15 per cent of the weight of the index between them.
Until very recently, BHP and Westpac shared an even greater bond, as Ms Hewson stepped down from the Westpac board just last June. During that period she would have sat comfortably atop our measures of influence as the nation's most influential corporate director.
A comparable nexus of power can be found surrounding the boardroom table at a much smaller corporate player, punting group 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 Elmer Funke Kupper.
■Tabcorp links ANZ and Commonwealth Bank by hosting CBA's Jane Hemstritch and ANZ's Paula 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' owner Wesfarmers, shares the Lend Lease board with Woolworths director Michael Ullmer.
The network can be extended from Coles to Metcash, owner of 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.
Through Mr Cowin, the media industry becomes very cosy indeed. He shares the Ten board with Lachlan Murdoch.
That association links, via one degree of separation, the company that owns this newspaper, to News Corporation, publisher and owner of The Australian and the Herald Sun, two of this paper's most direct rivals in every media platform in which we operate.