Cassidy ousted as Liberty family feud reaches bitter climax

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Denis Cassidy was yesterday ousted from his post as chairman of the luxury department store Liberty in the bloody climax of a bitter feud among members of the store's founding family. As Andrew Verity reports, Elizabeth Stewart-Liberty united with her former nemesis, corporate financier Brian Myerson, to vote out Mr Cassidy.

The Stewart-Liberty family was yesterday attacked by members of a rival branch of the Liberty dynasty for "trampling on the Liberty flower" as it staged a shareholders' coup against a chairman who said his real sin was to be too independent to tolerate.

Rebel shareholders led by Elizabeth Stewart-Liberty, a descendant of the store's founder, gained 10.9 million votes in favour of three resolutions to remove Mr Cassidy and install Brian Myerson, a South African corporate financier, and Odile Griffith, Mrs Stewart-Liberty's financial adviser, as directors. Votes against totalled 8.7m.

Andrew Garety, a serving director who has been appointed chairman in Mr Cassidy's place, said: "The Board regrets the departure of Denis Cassidy, who has played a vital part in leading the team that has turned the business around. It is my first concern that we try to avoid further disruption to Liberty."

A decision to abstain by the Merchant Navy Ratings' Pension Fund, which holds a 5 per cent stake in the store, assured Mr Myerson and Odile Griffith, Mrs Stewart-Liberty's financial adviser, victory. They won a resolution to oust Mr Cassidy with a majority of votes cast. Two further resolutions, giving non-executive directorships to Mr Myerson and Ms Griffith, were also carried.

Sitting stoney-faced at yesterday's egm with Mr Myerson, Mrs Stewart- Liberty resisted repeated calls to tell other shareholders her corporate strategy. The two this year reconciled past differences to form a "Concert Party" which controls 47 per cent of shareholders' votes at the London- based department store.

In a swipe at Mr Myerson, Anthony Blackmore, a shareholder descended from another member of the Liberty clan, said: "It is quite unacceptable that Mr Myerson and his colleagues should decline to say what they intend to do. I don't think [Myerson} is qualified to sit in the boardroom. I want to improve Liberty by retailing and not by pushing bits of paper around the City." Another shareholder said of Mr Myerson's silence: "This is a very arrogant way to behave."

Facing the prospect of being removed as chairman, Denis Cassidy, a former chief executive of Bhs, accused the rebel shareholders of seeking to acquire control of Liberty without paying a premium. "The real victim here is not me but the company, corporate governance and shareholder democracy.

He added that both Mrs Stewart-Liberty and Mr Myerson had failed to honour assurances given as a condition of his appointment that they would not interfere with the running of the business. "Perhaps, in their view, I am too independent," he said.

Mr Cassidy also warned that the four other members of the board, who have given him unanimous support, would reject a demand, floated by the Concert Party, for Mr Myerson and Ms Griffith to become co-chairmen.

The latest episode of the family feud at Liberty was ostensibly over a plan by the board to expand the company's flagship Regent Street store. The plan was to utilise 50,000 square feet of unused space to compete with West End rivals such as Harrods and Harvey Nichols.

Mr Myerson and Mrs Stewart-Liberty claimed to be annoyed at the pounds 43m investment required, against Liberty's market capitalisation of pounds 67m. They have also objected to the closing of regional branches. Mr Cassidy yesterday said Mr Myerson had backed both the branch closures and the size of investment.