City: Business sense on vacation at Owners

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The Independent Online
PERHAPS Howard Klein, who resigned last week as chairman of Owners Abroad, should have copied his rival David Crossland, chairman of Airtours. Crossland likes nothing better than to do a spot of market research on Saturday afternoons by lurking anonymously at the back of travel agencies observing which customers buy which holidays. This way, he insists, he keeps in touch with what people want.

Mr Klein was evidently not in touch. Over the last four months, his company has managed to mislay half its expected annual profit - a truly remarkable feat even in the volatile conditions of the travel trade. It stretches credulity a little, but it is just about possible to believe that pounds 15m in profit can vanish so fast in the highly geared world of travel. But Mr Klein has left the investors who backed his defence against Airtours's bid last February apoplectic with fury.

Owners fended off Airtours with confident assertions of its sparkling trading record and prospects. To say that these have proved wildly inaccurate is an understatement. It is only right that the Panel should find out whether or not Owners was deliberately misleading people.

I suspect the findings are unlikely to make headlines. There is no suggestion so far that Mr Klein and his cohorts at Owners were lying their heads off to keep their jobs. After all, he and his three main directors stood to gain pounds 20m from their shareholdings in Owners had they accepted the Airtours bid. To turn down that kind of cash, you have to assume that they genuinely believed in their company.

Owners claims that demand for its holidays collapsed in May and June, because the travel agencies Pickfords (owned by Airtours) and Lunn Poly (owned by Thomson) deliberately steered customers away from its products. This is a serious allegation because, if true, it suggests that by owning the two biggest travel agency chains, Airtours and Thomson can fix the market. By implication, this offers all kinds of potential for manipulating customers. The allegation should spur on the Office of Fair Trading's tentative investigations into the structure of the industry.

In the case of Owners, however, there is no clear evidence so far that the company was being victimised by its rivals. On the face of it, Owners failed to sell holidays for the simple reason that consumers didn't want them. More of them wanted the kind of cheap Spanish holidays that Owners does not offer. Mr Klein and Co had misjudged the market - and not for the first time. They had already demonstrated their ability to misread the market in 1992, when the company's profits plunged - opening the way for the Airtours bid. The shareholders who rejected the Airtours bid, therefore, were backing a management with a record of getting their market wrong.

Now the shareholders are in a real bind. Their shares are worth about half the 150p they could have got from Airtours, which makes them look pretty stupid. What makes them look even stupider is that Thomas Cook - now owned by Westdeutsche Landesbank - owns 20 per cent, giving it a virtual controlling interest. And it appears to have no plans to make a full bid. No wonder the shareholders are praying that the Panel will decide to waive the one-year rule and allow Airtours to bid all over again - at a lower price. I doubt the Panel will oblige, but if it does the shareholders will be mighty lucky. They certainly don't deserve it.