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Business Comment

Anthony Hilton: Gilbert deserves credit, not brickbats

Mr Gilbert... stuck with the group and has got it back on an even keel

I should declare an interest and tell you that on Monday evening I was a guest of Aberdeen Asset Management at the Chelsea Flower Show gala preview.

That may make me biased but I nevertheless think that Aberdeen's chief executive Martin Gilbert, who until this week doubled up as chairman of First Group, has been subject to unduly harsh criticism following the announcement of a rights issue by the transport group.

First Group needs the rights issue money because it bought heavily in America a few years ago and then could not reduce the resultant debt as planned because it could not find buyers willing to pay realistic prices for what it wanted to sell.

Perhaps with hindsight it should have been more ruthless with its disposals, but I do not recall any of those now sticking the knife into Mr Gilbert saying so at the time. Perhaps it should have had a rights issue then – as I believe Mr Gilbert suggested – but that is not what the board decided to do.

My take on things is that he has been chairman of the company for 27 years, during which time it has grown from one bus garage in Aberdeen to being arguably the world's largest bus and train group. Hitting a bump in the road now should not be allowed to detract from that achievement.

Secondly, facing a looming problem like this, there are some chairmen who would have quietly moved on and left their successors to clear up the mess. Others would have fired the chief executive and blamed him and a third group who would have sold the business to some foreign buyer so the financial stress would never become public.

Mr Gilbert took none of those easy options but stuck with the group and has got it back on an even keel. For that he deserves credit, not brickbats. It would have been so much easier to walk away.