Former BPB chief in the frame to head Compass

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Richard Cousins, the recently departed head of the plasterboard maker BPB, is believed to have been approached to become the new chief executive of the embattled catering giant Compass Group.

Mike Bailey is stepping down as chief executive of Compass after a tough year during which the company slipped into financial crisis following a string of profit warnings. It is also embroiled in an investigation into allegedly corrupt buying practices on United Nations catering contracts. The group sacked three senior executives amid allegations relating to attempts to bribe UN officials.

The headhunter Korn Ferry is believed to have approached Mr Cousins, who left BPB after it was acquired by the French building materials group Saint-Gobain for £3.9bn in November.

He then joined the board of P&O, the ports and ferries group, as a non-executive director in early December.

Mr Cousins is thought to be one of several candidates being interviewed for the top job at Compass.

Any appointment will have to be approved by Sir Roy Gardner, who will replace Sir Francis Mackay as Compass's chairman when he steps down as chief executive of Centrica later this year.

Mr Cousins turned down an offer from Saint-Gobain to stay on and run BPB under new ownership. He led BPB's defence against the French company's overtures, rejecting the initial 675p a share offer as far too low and setting out time and again the arguments why it undervalued the group's prospects. His steadfast approach - BPB spurned a total of four approaches from the French - eventually paid off when the British company was sold for 775p a share.

Compass is now offloading its retail food and drink arm, Select Service Partner, which owns the Moto service station chain, the Upper Crust railway station sandwich shops, and Harry Ramsden's, the fish and chip restaurant chain. Autogrill, the European food giant controlled by the Benetton family, has emerged as a front-runner in the bidding war. It is believed to have offered about £1.3bn for SSP to secure a place as the only trade buyer on a short list of six. Autogrill, which is listed in Milan, has 534 service stations across Europe, mainly in Italy, but lacks a presence in Britain.

Compass is also reportedly drawing up plans to reduce the benefits that members of its final salary pension schemes enjoy. According to media reports, Compass is mulling changes that would mean an employee with 40 years' service would get only half of his or her final pay.