John Ritblat, the veteran chairman of British Land, is planning to quit the company as it moves towards a separation of the roles of chairman and chief executive. The surprise revelation came as British Land saw off an attempt by rebel shareholder Laxey Partners to force the company to buy back its own shares and put the management of its property portfolio out to tender.
Mr Ritblat, 66, told shareholders at the group's annual meeting in London yesterday that the group was moving towards a splitting of the roles in addition to the appointment of two new non-executive directors. However, rather than retain one of the titles Mr Ritblat said he was likely to leave. "When I go, I'll probably go completely," he said after the meeting. "I'm not splitting the roles as long as I'm here."
The group is looking to appoint two new non-executives by the end of March 2003. A new chairman and a new deputy chairman will then be drawn from the expanded board and be in place by the end of 2003.
Laxey's resolutions suffered a heavy defeat, though such was the level of disorganisation at the meeting that the final voting tallies will not be formally reported until this morning. However, it is understood that Mr Ritblat was subjected to considerable embarrassment with a substantial number of votes cast against his re-election.
Colin Kingsnorth, chairman of Laxey Partners, said: "It appears there has been a very substantial vote against the chairman. I can only imagine that he has had to say to institutions that he is going in order to get their support."
Mr Ritblat was coy on whether he would like his son Nick, who is already a British Land director, to become chief executive and continue the family dynasty. "I only have ambitions (for Nick be chief executive) if it his ambition," he said. "He may want to throw his hat into the ring."
The boardroom structure at British Land has been heavily criticised as two of the directors are aged over 70 and three of the four non-executives have connections with the company which may compromise their independence. These include Derek Higgs, who is heading a government report into the effectiveness of non-executives. Mr Higgs denied any embarrassment yesterday but said he would step down from the board if he thought it was an issue.
Mr Ritblat, wearing a lapel badge bearing the legend "I Love British Land", launched a scathing attack on Laxey, which bought one per cent of the company's shares and borrowed another 8 per cent to increase its chances of success.
"This is not shareholder activism – it appears to be just rent-a-share greenmail for the AGM," Mr Ritblat told shareholders. "These oppressive and selfish Laxey resolutions are designed solely to make a fast buck for Laxey and would destroy your long-term value and security. It is the board's job to run the company."
One shareholder joined in the attack saying: "Who the devil are these Laxey Partners? We should send them packing."
Mr Ritblat said he was upbeat about the future. "It may be doom and gloom in the stock market but our business is in fine fettle. There are not many companies that can match our performance."
British Land shares closed 3.5p lower at 518.5p.