Burford shares slide as founder steps down

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The Independent Online
Shares in Burford slid to a 17-month low yesterday after Nick Leslau, one of the property group's founders with Nigel Wray, announced he was bowing out of executive duties. The surprise decision sent the shares 3.5p lower to 104.5p, their lowest level since hitting a peak of 159p in January.

Mr Leslau, who will move up to the non-executive position of deputy chairman, is to be replaced as chief executive by John Anderson, an insider. Nigel Wray, the other moving force behind the company, is to remain as chairman.

Mr Leslau, who will not receive a pay-off but will be forced to cash in options currently showing a profit of pounds 2.22m, said his decision to relinquish the chief executive's role had no connection with the collapse last week of merger talks with rival property group MEPC. He denied reports that the discussions failed because of differences over who was to fill management roles at the enlarged group.

"There was never any chance that Nigel and I would become lifelong MEPC employees. There was some discussion about us coming in and seeing if we could add value to MEPC."

Mr Leslau said his decision to leave was prompted rather by the group's increasing proportions compared with his 2 per cent shareholding. "Burford has become such a size that my personal stake is rather small. Having built up the company over 10 or 15 years and brought on a fantastic management team, I want to go off and do it again and this time with a bigger stake."

Analysts said Mr Leslau's departure left the group vulnerable to a predator. Selwyn Jones of Credit Lyonnais Laing said: "Burford is crying out to be taken over, to my way of thinking."

The shares have been hit over concerns at Burford's diversification strategy, including the Trocadero, the troubled owner of the leisure centre at London's Piccadilly Circus, and the failure of the MEPC merger talks. The share price is now standing below net asset value, put at around 118p a share by Mr Anderson.

Mr Wray emphasised that he would be continuing in the same role as before and would not be selling shares in the group. "We have created a rock- solid company with significant growth potential", he said.

Mr Anderson, who comes from Dundee, has been running the group's property business since March 1996 after 17 years in the property division of Ladbroke. He said the company would focus on property investments in the UK and in time reduce its holdings in associated businesses such as Trocadero and Columbus, the travel publisher.

Although investors had become disillusioned with Mr Leslau's recent performance, analysts remain cautious about Mr Anderson. UBS analyst Ray Jones commented: "John Anderson is a very capable property guy but as a chief executive he's an unknown and must show the City what he can do."

Mr Leslau, who received total pay of pounds 396,000 last year, said he still had to finalise his plans for the future. "The intention is to find a suitable shell and probably inject some suitable assets into it and probably get Nigel along as an investor."

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