Cowie's founder attacks board

The war of words at Cowie intensified yesterday when Sir Tom Cowie, the transport group's founder, life president and 2.8 per cent shareholder, accused the board of "completely lacking any common sense".

Sir Tom was speaking ahead of next Wednesday's EGM, called to remove Neil Pykett, the former boss of its car-leasing offshoot, as a director.

Sir Tom also accused chief executive Gordon Hodgson of "wielding too much power". Mr Pykett's departure and the earlier exit of Iain Jane from the executive team means that Mr Hodgson is the only one left of the triumvirate who took charge after Sir Tom was forced out as chairman in 1993 at the age of 71.

"Hodgson has now surrounded himself with intimidated colleagues," Sir Tom claims. "Anyone who has the temerity to stand up to him gets the push." He describes Cowie's non-executive chairman, Sir James McKinnon, the former gas industry regulator as "Hodgson's choice".

The row involving 48-year-old Mr Pykett began in October when it became clear he was not the automatic choice to succeed Mr Hodgson, who is now 65.

Mr Pykett handed in his resignation, saying he wanted to work out his three-year contract. But he was forced out of his job in February after a row over his wish to sell his shares in the company. Other directors accused him of "gross misconduct."

"What agitates me," said Sir Tom, "is the long-term need to plan the management succession. There is also the effect on the share price of this row. The shares are down 13 per cent despite the record results announced in March."

Officials at Cowie claim Sir Tom is now "out of touch" with the business. Last month shareholders received letters from both Mr Pykett and Sir James McKinnon spelling out their versions of the row

"More dirty linen will be washed in public at the EGM," Sir Tom predicts. "But I don't think many institutional shareholders will bother to go up to Sunderland to hear the arguments. They will vote with the board. They always do."

Observers of the company think the entire imbroglio might have been avoided if Cowie had a normal head office. But the company, with a stock market value approaching pounds 1bn, is still run on the original site of Cowie's first motorcycle shop. Sir Tom started Cowie in Sunderland more than 40 years ago as a motorbike repair shop. It is now big in car leasing and an operator of privatised buses, running the biggest bus operation in London.