Liberty shareholders get the vote: One-for-two offer to compensate holders of voting shares Profits drop 13%

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The Independent Online
LIBERTY, the department store and textile group, yesterday became the latest company to give equal rights to all its shareholders when it said it would enfranchise its non- voting shares.

It joins a number of companies - including Great Universal Stores and Whitbread - that have made similar moves over the past year. That leaves just a handful of companies - notably The Savoy and Schroders - still with a dual voting structure.

Holders of the voting shares, which currently account for 69 per cent of the capital, are being offered one new share for every two held to compensate them for the reduction in their voting rights from 100 per cent to 77 per cent. That will increase Liberty's share capital by 34 per cent. The voting shares dropped 10p to 535p, but the non- voting were unchanged at 330p.

The proposals were welcomed by Brian Myerson, head of Concerto Capital Corporation, who has long campaigned for full voting rights for all shareholders. He owns 15.8 per cent of the voting shares. His stake will fall slightly to about 15 per cent after enfranchisement.

Liberty announced last year that it would enfranchise its non-voting shares, but only when it was confident that earnings would be high enough to allow the group to pay a maintained dividend on the increased number of shares.

Patrick Austen, chief executive, said the decision to enfranchise demonstrated its confidence in the company's future. That was despite a 13.5 per cent drop in pre-tax profits to pounds 3.2m in the year to 29 January. Earnings per share dipped from 9.05p to 8.02p, but the dividend was held at 7.2p via a 5.35p final.

The fall, on turnover maintained at pounds 82.9m, was due to a slump in profits at the wholesale and converting division, which produces Liberty prints and gifts, from pounds 1.9m to pounds 611,000. But profits from its retailing business increased fivefold to pounds 1.5m, on sales 11.5 per cent ahead at pounds 61.1m.

Mr Austen attributed the increase to changes at the flagship Regent Street store, as well as the opening of new outlets - including one at Heathrow, which has been extremely successful. Changes in the store include the introduction of a perfume department, refurbishment of the men's department and the introduction of new ranges, such as Joseph, the designer label.

He added that there would be further benefits from these changes in the current year. Converting and wholesaling, which was badly affected by a sharp downturn in the dress fabric business in France, was now meeting budget.

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