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Cassidy fights for his life at Liberty

The dissident shareholder group that wants to oust Denis Cassidy as chairman of Liberty plc freely acknowledges that it has no revitalising plan to set in place if it succeeds.

Bryan Myerson, an investor whose 17 per cent stake in one of London's most famous stores has fallen in value from pounds 14.9m to pounds 13.7m in the past year, and Mrs Elizabeth Stewart-Liberty, who has 27 per cent, are united in opposition to Mr Cassidy's vision and expensive expansion plans. A few years ago the two were antagonists. Liberty shareholders vote on Thursday on the leadership of the 122-year-old London department store.

Although unhappy with Liberty's performance under Mr Cassidy, so far Mr Myerson has only said that he wants shareholders to vote Mr Cassidy out and to install himself, Mrs Stewart-Liberty's four step-children, and her adviser Odile Griffith, on to the board.

"They don't have specific plans for the store," said John Kiely, a spokesman for Myerson. "They want to review all options once they are on board. What they don't want to do is spend pounds 43m on the store," Mr Kiely said. Mr Cassidy wants to spend this sum to expand and refurbish the maze-like Regent Street store, parts of which have remained unaltered for decades.

The plan follows Cassidy's success in restoring Liberty to profit. He was appointed in 1995 to reverse six years of falling earnings. After a pounds 16.6m loss in 1996, Liberty returned to profit in fiscal 1997.

"Liberty is an icon of British retailing," said Robert Clark, director of consultants Corporate Intelligence on Retailing. "It needs to be modernised, but be in a way that retains the idiosyncrasies of the store."

Mr Myerson, a South African known for agitating for change at companies whose shares he owns, and his supporters say the plan will push debt to unacceptable levels and is too heavy a burden on the company, whose market capitalisation is pounds 80m. They have amassed 47 per cent of the votes ahead of Thursday's meeting and say they are not contemplating losing.

The board counters that Mr Myerson proposed a pounds 40m plan of his own in June and said it "can't understand" why he has apparently changed his mind. Finance director Andrew Garety said the board has the support of around 35 per cent of the votes including institutional shareholders and a 16 per cent block of shareholders who are members of the extended Stewart- Liberty family.

Speaking over the phone from her Buckinghamshire country home last week Mrs Stewart-Liberty, who is in her 60s, was not anxious to give her views. Asked what she thought of family members who support Mr Cassidy, she said: "I love them dearly, but you'll have to excuse me. I'm just a lady who looks after my chickens."

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