Key shareholders join calls to remove Bradshaw at Care First

Shareholder calls to oust Keith Bradshaw, the chairman of Care First, following a boardroom bust-up gathered pace yesterday. Meanwhile other directors in the nursing home group are coming under pressure as more employees consider leaving.
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Two key shareholders in Care First, the embattled nursing home group, yesterday joined calls to remove Keith Bradshaw as chairman. Following meetings yesterday with Chai Patel, who quit as chief executive last month after a power struggle with Mr Bradshaw, Mercury Asset Management and Schroders, which hold around 9 per cent of the group's shares, have shifted their positions in favour of removing Mr Bradshaw. Schroders is also keen to reinstate Mr Patel while MAM is undecided.

Invesco and Abbey Life said yesterday that they had support from at least 20 per cent of shareholders to call an emergency meeting and are preparing to present shareholders' concerns to SBC Warburg, Care First's advisers, tomorrow. The institutions want to vote on two issues - whether to remove Mr Bradshaw and whether to reinstate Mr Patel.

A leading fund manager who called recent developments "shareholder democracy in action," said yesterday that he saw no reason why Mr Patel should not come back: "He is the best brains in the sector and he is willing to return. I cannot see why the board say it would be difficult to get him back."

A split is also emerging among Care First's non-executive directors. Some members of the company's board are unhappy about the claim by Warburgs that more than half of shareholders support Mr Bradshaw staying as non- executive chairman. One non-executive yesterday independently called leading shareholders to clarify their views.

The position of Keith Ackroyd, Care First's deputy chairman, and Ron Reid, finance director, also look increasingly uncertain.

Mr Ackroyd yesterday faced criticism from institutions for being too close to Mr Bradshaw. He and Ian Kirkpatrick, another non-executive director, have been accused of undermining Mr Patel's reputation to shareholders. One said that he was "disillusioned" that some of the non-executive directors at Care First appeared to be closing ranks. Care First was unavailable for comment last night.

Mr Ackroyd has also been accused by some observers of failing as the senior non-executive director to make every effort to inform all other non-executives of Mr Patel's intentions to resign. One non-executive who was not contacted by Mr Ackroyd before the resignation said he would have tried to persuade Mr Patel to solve the issue from within the group. "It could have all looked very different."

Though the director eventually voted against Mr Patel's reinstatement "for the sake of board unity", he said yesterday that, "in an ideal world, Mr Patel is still the best person to run this company".

Mr Reid is also facing criticism over accounting policy within the company following the merger last year between Takare, founded by Mr Bradshaw, and Court Cavendish, Mr Patel's company.

The company's failure to implement a proper accounting and payroll system means Care First is still owed several hundreds of thousands of pounds by employees who were overpaid. The company was forced to call in its auditors KPMG at the half-year to overhaul the accounts.

Morale is said to be low among senior employees at Care First. Since news last week that four management board members were considering leaving the company, several top managers have contacted The Independent saying they are also reviewing their positions.

Meanwhile Butterfield Securities will today join Laing & Buisson, the healthcare consultants in questioning Care First's stock market value. In a new research note, Butterfield's places a maximum value on Care First's assets of 65p-70p a share, significantly below Warburg's estimate of 170p and the group's share price of 97p. "Once institutions realise what this company is worth, they will see that no-one is going to bid even a pound for it," said Laing & Buisson's Paul Saper. "Care First needs a leader who can radically improve relations with the health authorities and bring in skilled managers. The old Takare management know it which is why they merged with Court Cavendish in the first place."