Gloves off as family feud erupts at Liberty

A bitter family feud has broken out in the battle for control of Liberty, the upmarket Regent Street retailer. The founding Stewart- Liberty family looked certain to succeed in its attempt to oust the group's chairman. But yesterday the board said it had the support of three other branches of the Liberty family dynasty. As the insults start to fly, Nigel Cope, City Correspondent, looks at a messy squabble.

The Liberty board is now claiming it has the backing of 34 per cent of the group's shareholders and has a fighting chance of defeating a motion to oust Denis Cassidy, the group's chairman, at an emergency meeting next Thursday. The board says its support comes from several institutional investors (18 per cent) and three branches of the family who are cousins of the Stewart-Libertys (16 per cent).

This group consists of around 25 members of the Blackmore, Moffett and Codling families. They are all descendants of Emma Louise Blackmore, the second wife of Liberty's original founder, Arthur Lazenby Liberty. As the couple had no children, control of the company passed to the Stewart- Liberty family.

Some insiders say that the Blackmores, Codlings and Moffetts may have decided to back the board as they have been un-impressed with the performance of the company in which the Stewart-Liberty's have long had a dominant role. The other branches of the family have never had any management input into the business.

It is clear that the battle for control has caused a serious rift between the various family factions. One family member backing the board said yesterday: "What the family has done is devious and despicable and we cannot understand why Elizabeth Stewart-Liberty (who requisitioned the EGM in October) is taking this action."

Elizabeth Stewart-Liberty, the widow of the group's previous chairman, Arthur, requisitioned the meeting to oust Denis Cassidy because the family was unhappy over the company's performance and the board's plans to spend pounds 43m on re-developing the group's flagship Mock Tudor store in London's Regent Street. The plans include a food hall and restaurant on the upper floor.

She joined forces with rebel investor Brian Myerson who has a 17 per cent stake even though she had been strongly critical of him in the past. The concert party now has the backing of 47 per cent of the votes.

However, the rest of the board have said that if Mr Cassidy goes they may feel in an untenable position. The advisers have all threatened to resign while the group's bankers may review the funding support for the refurbishment.

The board was in upbeat mood yesterday and has sent out an additional circular to investors. Andrew Garety, finance director said: "We think the vote will be very close. This is why we have sent out another document to remind people that they will not be wasting their vote."

Odile Griffith, the financial representative of the Stewart-Liberty family, disputed the board's level of support yesterday and said the family was confident they would win. "Come Thursday, everything will be revealed."

Though Mr Cassidy and the board still look unlikely to win there are still several blocks of votes to play for. There are several institutions account for 13 per cent of the company, which have yet to show their hand. But the final outcome could well come down to the few hundred private shareholders who control five per cent of the company.

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