Shareholders attack Baird's M&S compensation claim

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William Baird, the textile group which is taking Marks & Spencer to court over its decision to start buying clothes from abroad, is about to come under pressure for its aggressive stance.

Shareholders are to challenge David Suddens, the group's chief executive, and Sir David Cooksey, the chairman, over Baird's poor performance and its continuing row with the high street retailer.

Mr Suddens announced last autumn that Baird would be suing M&S for £53.6m over the retailer's sudden decision to drop Baird as its supplier.

The textile group now claims that the move cost it £104m, led to 4,000 redundancies and was responsible for its atrocious 1999 figures, in which it recorded losses of £93.5m. Baird's shares have crashed from 124.5p a year ago to just 47.5p on Friday.

M&S has applied to the courts to have the legal action struck out, and a hearing will take place in late June. Even if it goes ahead, Mr Suddens is now admitting that Baird is unlikely to receive any more than £10m in compensation from M&S.

However, at Baird's annual general meeting, taking place on Tuesday, shareholders are expected to attack Mr Sudden and Sir David Cooksey over the loss of the M&S contact and the group's strategy since then.

"We feel that Baird contributed to its own problems and, like Stephen Byers and Rover, he should have seen the problems coming," said one substantial shareholder.

"We also feel that this litigation against M&S will get nowhere and merely puts out a bad message to other potential customers."

Mr Suddens denies that Baird could have been at fault in the loss of the M&S contract. "We made a presentation to them in July saying that they should move their production abroad and how we could help and support that process," he said.

Mr Suddens further denied that investors had shown any unhappiness with the decision to sue M&S.

"I have the full support of the board and we have spoken to all our leading shareholders about this," he said.

Baird's largest investor is Phillips & Drew, which owns 19.8 per cent of the group's shares. The fund manager has a reputation for shareholder activism and is keen to see further consolidation in the textile industry.

Last year it supported a shake-up of Coats Viyella, which saw the chief executive resign and the chairman retire.