Controversy over fat cats dogs Brown to the end

Cedric the Pig is indisposed but shareholders still unleash volleys of criticism during British Gas agm

Cedric Brown, the controversial British Gas chief executive, finally stepped down from the company yesterday, although criticism of his pay, generous pension and stewardship of the accident-prone group dogged him to the end.

Speaking after the company's poorly attended annual meeting in Birmingham, Mr Brown said he planned to have a few days off, take up fishing and possibly write a book.

"I'm going to enjoy life and spend some time with my family who have been very supportive."

Asked if he was proud of what he had achieved at the company that he joined 43 years ago he said: "I achieved what I set out to do. But others will have to judge."

He admitted that the 'fat cat' pay row had wounded him but refused to apologise for the embarrassment the scandal had caused the company.

"Some of it did hurt. If you are a human being it is going to. There are probably very few business people that have experienced that kind of thing. We're not trained for it. But you learn to cope with it and learn a lot about yourself."

Mr Brown, whose 75 per cent pay increase in 1994 sparked the 'fat cat' controversy, declined to say whether he felt relief or sadness on his last day. "I am going to look back at the whole 43 years and put the last two years in context. There's been a lot written about it and there's nothing more I can say."

Mr Brown's retirement will be cushioned by a pounds 240,000 annual pension and a pounds 120,000 consultancy fee, as well as a chauffeur-driven car and staffed office. Although he has more than 700,000 share options, most are worthless due to the low level of the British Gas share price.

British Gas had been braced for a large and unruly shareholders' meeting after last year's event when nearly 5,000 investors descended on the Docklands Arena in London and a 20-stone pig gorged itself on a trough of share options. This time only 500 turned up and Cedric the pig couldn't make it. The sow is heavily pregnant and was deemed unfit for travel.

Shareholders complained about the early 10am start and many were late, saying they couldn't find the National Exhibition Centre. British Gas denied that it had deliberately timed the start to prevent a larger turn- out and a potential repeat of last year's fiasco.

Shareholders were divided in their opinion of Cedric Brown's performance as chief executive. Most displayed a mixture of either anger or pity. Noel Falconer, a small shareholder who failed in his bid to be elected to the board, was the most vocal. "Cedric Brown has been a disaster as a chief executive. He is a super engineer but he was promoted beyond his capabilities."

Another shareholder called for the whole board to resign: "1995 was disastrous for the reputation and image of British Gas and I believe the directors are to blame. They have made this company a laughing stock. Why don't they all just go now?" However, the chairman, Richard Giordano, said the board was committed to carrying on.

Mr Brown did have some supporters. Mr Gibson from Glasgow said: "I am genuinely sorry to see Cedric Brown go today. The man has given 40 years to this company, boy and man, and we should recognise that." Polite applause followed.

Dennis Blakemore, a former water industry worker, who had cycled 23 miles from Stratford-upon-Avon to attend the meeting, was more critical, saying: "I'd like just a fraction of his pension. There must be people who could do a better job. I invested in this company as a kind of little Sid and have been waiting for the better times to come. They never have."

The company's customer service levels were also criticised as new figures from the Gas Consumers Council showed complaints about the firm's supply and service had doubled in 1995.

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