Arnault's no show stirs shareholders at Guinness agm

Bernard Arnault, the only member of the Guinness board who voted against its planned pounds 24bn merger with Grand Metropolitan, failed to attend its annual meeting yesterday. Mr Arnault, the chairman of Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, the luxury goods group which owns a 14 per cent stake in Guinness, was not on the podium at a packed meeting in a central London hotel.

No apology or explanation was given for his absence until a shareholder questioned it. Mr Speers, an ordinary shareholder said: "I note that certain members of the Guinness board are not present here including one member [Mr Arnault] who voted against the merger. Is there any significance in that?"

Tony Greener, the Guinness chairman, who has constantly denied talk of a rift between him and the Frenchman, said Mr Arnault was attending another board meeting on the same day and sent his apologies.

When questioned about the issue after the meeting, Mr Greener said Mr Arnault had given his apologies "months ago". Asked whether the alleged "rift" between them was so bad that Mr Arnault had deliberately chosen not to attend, Mr Greener said "absolutely not".

He added: "He has never been able to attend a Guinness annual meeting before, because he has always had another board meeting on the same day. It's nothing unusual."

Mr Arnault is chairman of Christian Dior as well as LVMH. He is also a non-executive director of Compagnie Generale des Eaux, the French utility. Guinness said all the companies had the same financial year end so a clash of meetings was possible.

When Mr Arnault voted against the GrandMet merger last week he proposed instead a three-way merger of the wine and spirits businesses of Guinness, GrandMet and Moet Hennessy, the LVMH drinks subsidiary in which Guinness holds a 34 per cent stake.

Mr Greener also discounted the possibility that an investment bank might devise a break-up bid for Guinness which would deliver Mr Arnault the company's spirits operation, United Distillers which he could then integrate the business with his own drinks group, Moet Hennessy. "If that was going to happen I would have thought it would be much more likely if the shares were nearer pounds 4 than pounds 6," Mr Greener said. The shares closed 6p lower yesterday at 566.5p.

Alternatively, analysts say the proposed merger might provoke Mr Arnault to sell his 14 per cent stake. He sold 7 per cent of the company's shares in January. Guinness directors will meet Mr Arnault at the next Moet meeting in the next three weeks.

Another shareholder criticised the Guinness board for a lack of imagination in their choice of name for the new company, GMG Brands. He suggested "Guinness Galore" as an alternative.

Mr Greener said he and the GrandMet chairman George Bull had considered GGM but had decided against it as it "might have connotations with horses and carts".

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