Shareholders snub Sir Stelios's call for an easyJet revolt

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The Independent Online

Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou, who last week resigned from the board of easyJet in a dispute over strategy, is now facing a struggle to persuade other investors to join his activist campaign.

The airline's founder, who has a 38 per cent stake in the company, will embark on a series of meetings with top shareholders this week in an attempt to get allies for his revolt.

Big investors include Standard Life, Legal & General, Capital Research, Schroders and Sanderson Asset Management.

But two leading fund management groups, which command a combined holding of as much as 10 per cent of easyJet's stock, said they will not be backing the campaign.

One said: "Frankly, it's a real nonsense. What Stelios fails to realise is that there has been a liquidity crunch and a recession. The management gets our vote." Another said: "His argument is simply flawed. He clearly needs to get his hands on a cash dividend. We believe he will lose any vote when it comes."

Sir Stelios's fight centres on the lack of a cash dividend payment and the board's wish to spend billions of dollars on new aircraft. He launched an astonishing broadside last week against the outgoing chief executive, Andy Harrison, who is joining the leisure company Whitbread, claiming he was overrated. He followed the criticism on Friday by announcing his surprise exit from the board to allow him to mount an "activist" campaign to stop the directors' plan to buy another 24 planes.

"I am doing this now to stop the decision – which will be taken at an away-day strategy meeting in the middle of June – to buy another 24 planes," he said. "I don't understand why the board has made this decision. It doesn't make sense looking at the traffic volumes or the profitability. This company isn't making the profits it should, or paying dividends."

Sir Stelios is against easyJet's plans to grow its fleet by 7.5 per cent this year and wants it to keep it around 190 planes for the next three to four years, focusing instead on boosting shareholder returns and profit margins from 3 per cent to 10 per cent.

"We need to stabilise the company which has been hit by the volcanic ash cloud and the recession," he said.

EasyJet has a contract with Airbus for another 59 aircraft which Sir Stelios wants stopped and he is considering whether to call a shareholder general meeting on whether the contract should be renegotiated.

His departure frees him up to campaign from the outside, he said, noting that British boardroom structures don't allow enough debate. "The executive is too powerful and too many of the executives – and non-executive directors – just go along with what the chief executive is doing without enough criticism. Just look at what happened at RBS and Sir Fred Goodwin and you will know what I mean."

Sir Stelio's surprise assault puts Carolyn McCall, the former chief executive of Guardian Media Group, who becomes easyJet's new chief executive in July, in an awkward position. Sir Stelios, who supported Ms McCall's appointment, said: "What this airline needs is someone who understands customers and marketing and who doesn't just want to buy planes. She knows my position and I hope we can work together."

Shares in easyJet fell nearly 3 per cent on Friday to 415p.

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