About 30 publicans, some sporting banners, handed out leaflets to shareholders going into London's Grosvenor House hotel, trying to canvass support for their claims of unfair rents.
Organised by the National Association of Inntrepreneur Lessees, which has 800 members, the publicans were mainly protesting that high rents were forcing them out of business.
Tricia Boyce, who runs the Britannia pub near Minehead in Somerset, said many of the conditions built into Inntrepreneur's 20-year leases were unfair. 'They expect you to keep it (the pub) up to their standard but don't give you any help. I spent more than pounds 4,000 on repairs last year and we are also going to need a new roof.'
Mrs Boyce moved into the Britannia in 1991. Annual turnover is pounds 89,000 and the rent, which she said was pounds 4,250 before Inntrepreneur acquired the pub in 1988, is now pounds 18,500.
The protest spilled over into the meeting. Many of the questions put to the board during the two- hour meeting hinged on the Inntrepreneur issue.
Charles Adams, a shareholder, even suggested that Grand Met might cut its dividend to help the publicans. 'In the last decade we've had a government whose policy is profit at all cost. I hope this company is not going to adopt a similar policy.'
Sir Allen Sheppard, chairman and chief executive, rejected criticism about Inntrepreneur, saying 'nobody is forcing anybody to sign an agreement'. Inntrepreneur leases, he added, were successful, with 1,372 agreed last year alone.
David Tagg, chief executive of the property and UK retailing operations, added that the failure rate was about 4.5 per cent a year, although it had risen to 9 per cent over the past six months.
Accusations that Grand Met was being heavy-handed with publicans by being too eager to send in bailiffs was also rebuffed by Sir Allen. The line between ethics and commercial activities 'is always a difficult one to draw', he said.
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