Olympus investors demand review

Chief executive's removal after only two weeks prompts questions over controversial transactions

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The Independent Online

Olympus's second-largest shareholder yesterday demanded answers to the issues raised by its ousted chief executive over four takeovers and joined calls for an independent investigation.

Southeastern Asset Management, which has a holding of close to 5 per cent in Olympus, followed two other major shareholders, Nippon Life and Harris Associates, in heaping pressure on the board.

It sent a letter in the morning to the board, the Tokyo Stock Exchange and the Japanese regulator with an "extensive list of questions". Josh Shores, the senior analyst and principal at Southeastern, said: "We think it is incumbent on the board to provide real assurances, very quickly."

Southeastern wants an independent committee established, which could then bring in auditors to investigate the controversial transactions. It wants a report by 16 November, Mr Shores said. "If the board can answer these questions satisfactorily, that's fine," he said. "If they can't, or won't, the direction taken may be different."

Southeastern has invested in Japan since the late 1990s and has held Olympus stock since 2004. As a long-term investor it has become concerned by the events of the past week with the firing of Mr Woodford over what the board called a culture clash.

The former head, who was removed just two weeks after he was appointed as the company's first foreign chief executive, believes he was ousted after raising serious corporate governance issues at the group.

"Michael Woodford's appointment as president and then chief executive was a huge step forward for the company, at the time we said how pleased we were. The fact he has been forced out is a big step back," Mr Shores said. "We are very disappointed now."

Harris Associates has also written to Olympus in the wake of the "massive destruction of stakeholder value". The shares have tumbled by almost half since Mr Woodford was dismissed on Friday. Harris joined Southeastern in demanding an independent investigation, saying the board should be pushing to find out the truth. "It's all stakeholders, not just shareholders, but employees and those that do business with Olympus that deserve answers," the investor said.

One Japanese investor also broke ranks. Nippon Life, which holds an 8.2 per cent stake, publicly called for action over the corporate governance issue. Officials at the Tokyo market also revealed they had pushed Olympus to release more information related to its takeover of Gyrus. The contentious deal saw Olympus pay $687m (£435m) in advisory fees, more than a third of the total. Normally financial advisers receive about 1 per cent of any deal.

This comes as Mr Woodford took more documents to the Serious Fraud Office in the UK after presenting an initial dossier on Monday.

He also said he was to go to Scotland Yard to talk about the need for police protection. He told The Independent this week he was "increasingly fearful" for his safety after publicly revealing his concerns over governance.