Liberty's family ties are severed

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The Independent Online
BY NIGEL COPE

The famous Liberty print scarves were probably fluttering at half mast at the upmarket retailer's flagship store in Regent Street yesterday. Richard and Oliver Stewart-Liberty, the last two family members still working in the business, resigned from the board, ending the family's 120-year boardroom association with the company they founded in 1875.

Only Anthony Blackmore, a non-executive director and distant member of the co-founding Blackmore clan, retains any boardroom connection.

Richard Stewart-Liberty, who is 49, will stay on to run the branded products division. But his brother Oliver, 48, is to seek pastures new. The pair have decided to go because the 10-man board was considered too large. It was also deemed no longer necessary for each department to be represented.

"Inevitably there is an element of sadness. It's a significant step," a Liberty spokesman said.

The decision is the latest move to drag the company away from its Victorian roots. In the past three years it has followed such new-fangled trends as splitting the roles of chairman and chief executive and appointing non-executive directors. The largest step came in 1993 when it abandoned its two-tier voting structure. The changes were forced after a campaign by Brian Myerson, a South African who bought a stake.

"The board changes are all part of a long-term plan to bring us up to date," the chairman, Harry Weblin, said. Being up to date is something Liberty has rarely been accused of. "I've been to their board meetings, they're half asleep," Mr Myerson said during his campaign.

The company, which now has 23 outlets, still has problems. Poor trading conditions and the cost of closing its New York Fifth Avenue store pushed it into a £305,000 deficit at the interim stage. Full-year figures later this month are expected to show that a good performance from the retail side is being hampered by problems at the textiles division.

But the Stewart-Libertys are not exactly down on their luck. The family still owns more than 40 per cent of the shares, with a current value of £22m.

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