James Moore: Photo-Me fine shames its former directors - Business Comment - Business - The Independent

James Moore: Photo-Me fine shames its former directors

Outlook: The FSA appears to be saying that this was a cock-up rather than a conspiracy

Photo-Me became something of a cause célèbre in 2007 after three directors cashed in share options just weeks before a brutal profits warning. François Giuntini, the company's former general counsel, and Riccardo Costi, previously an executive director, did their deals on 20 February, a couple of weeks after the late finance director had made a similar move. The profits warning duly followed at the beginning of the next month.

To no one's great surprise (apart, perhaps, from the company itself) investors were rather less than impressed when the details emerged and there was an almighty public row.

Yesterday, the affair was back in the spotlight after we finally heard from the Financial Services Authority (FSA) on the matter. The directors, the watchdog found, did not individually breach any rules. Photo-Me is not a regulated firm, after all, but the company was fined a record £500,000 under the listing rules for allowing there to be a "false market" in the shares for fully 44 days. In other words, that profits warning should have come an awful lot earlier.

Because it means that, for more than a month, people buying the shares did not have a true picture of the company's financial affairs. Those people lost an awful lot of money when the profit warning was issued. They have the right to feel thoroughly aggrieved, and angry. In the US, investors have been only too willing to sue for much less.

In stating that there were "no findings of regulatory breach against any past or present directors of Photo-Me in relation to this matter" the FSA appears to be saying that this was a cock-up rather than a conspiracy.

But that shouldn't prevent the directors in charge of the company at the time from hanging their heads in shame. Because it still reflects very poorly on them and suggests that those sitting around the table at the Mad Hatter's Tea Party would have done a rather better job at running the company. And they wouldn't require six-figure salaries. Just boardroom quality digestives and a couple of cakes.

As ever, however, shame appears to be in short supply. Photo-Me's lawyers have been on to us recently questioning the relevance of the continuing presence of our 2007 report on the share options being on our website.

Perhaps today's events, at least partly, will answer that for them. The FSA might have stressed that no director breached any regulatory requirement – it fined the company as a whole, so, ultimately, Photo-Me's shareholders will suffer again. But then it doesn't have the power to fine directors from a firm like Photo-Me for incompetence. And it's competence that is the issue here. In fining the company as a whole, the FSA has raised questions about the competence of the entire board in charge at the time. They should be ashamed of themselves.

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