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Moores to wrest control from Littlewoods bosses

  • @c_blackhurst
The Moores family, which owns every share in the £2bn Littlewoods mail order football pools and stores group, has resolved to wrest immediate day-to-day control from the company's senior executives.

At a secret meeting in a London hotel last Friday, the Independent has learned, the Moores decided to hand the job of group chief executive to James Suenson-Taylor, son of Betty Moores, Lady Grantchester, daughter of Sir John Moores the group's late founder.

The decision, likely to be announced this week, raises questions about the future of Barry Dale, Littlewoods' chief executive.

Mr Suenson-Taylor was present at the meeting - the second in 10 days - with his mother and senior family representatives. Leonard Van Geest, chairman, was also present.

Mr Suenson-Taylor, 39 was educated at Eton College and Kingston Polytechnic.

Married with two children, he is a former international oarsman.

Apart from serving as a non-executive director on the Littlewoods board he has no experience of managing a company of that size.

Mr Suenson-Taylor is expected to be a stop-gap appointment as the Moores search for a more experienced high-profile figure. He will be assisted by Bill Huntley, the current deputy chief executive.

The new broom's first job will be to restore family confidence in the management - the meeting was told how a merchant bank had recently looked at the company and voiced concern at the poor quality of some of its senior and middle managers.

Instrumental in securing Mr Suenson-Taylor's appointment and Mr Dale's likely departure, was Lady Grantchester.

For some time she has felt the family has been squeezed out of having a say in their business and has not been consulted sufficiently.

Of Sir John's four children, Lady Grantchester is regarded as the keeper of the family flame.

Brother Peter is keen to dispose of his 22 per cent stake to other family members; brother John is deeply committed to charity and social work; sister Janatha has little say in the company.

Ever since Sir John finally retired in 1982, aged 86 - he died in 1993 - his relatives have struggled to get a grip on the legacy of Britain's biggest private company.

After failing to find a successor within the family, and toying with, and then rejecting a stock market flotation, they turned to outside managers for help.

In the late 1980s the non-family executives transformed the business, bringing it up to date with its retailing rivals.

Latest figures show profits for the year to end-December 1993 of £117m.

In the past few months that success has begun to pall. The pools side, started by Sir John in 1923, has been hit by the National Lottery and has had to lay off staff.

Family confidence in the executives has been badly shaken by a series of recent events. Prodip Guha, head of the international division, was sacked last October after holding an unauthorised meeting with a journalist.

He has since retaliated by claiming he was the victim of racial discrimination - a charge denied by the company.

More alarming for the family,who jealously guard the company's dependable image, has been the exposure of fraud in the stores' buying department. Private detectives have been drafted in and have been poring over the books.Three senior managers have left so far.

The Moores also became worried about a deal with a Far East trading company, called Lorad.

Executives had the idea of cutting out the middleman - of sourcing products direct, from factories in the Far East.

Instead of setting up their own network of offices, which would take time, they struck a partnership with Lorad.

Family members thought the deal was too generous to Lorad and became even more alarmed when they discovered Lorad had links to the international defence industry.

The joint venture was swiftly terminated, with Littlewoods buying out Lorad. Even that has turned sour with the revelation last week that an associate company of Lorad has issued a writ against Littlewoods for £1m which it claimed it is still owed.

Mr Dale told the Independent yesterday he had heard about rumoured moves to replace him.

"I rang over the weekend the chairman and one or two directors. I didn't get any confirmation but I didn't get any denials either." Mr Dale said he would be "disappointed" to go.

After seven years' service with the group, he can expect a substantial payoff. "I would want to go on a proper basis that recognised my good record," said Mr Dale.

He claimed "a mixture of personal ambition from certain individuals and the family wanting control" was behind the attempt to unseat him.

Mr Van Geest said he was not prepared "to speculate and talk about rumours".

Asked about the meeting on Friday, he would not go into detail."We meet on a regular basis," he said.