SkyePharma rebels lose vote to appoint Thian on board

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The Independent Online

A long-running battle between the ailing drug developer SkyePharma and dissident shareholders came to an end yesterday with the rebels failing in their attempt to get their candidate Bob Thian appointed to the board.

The rebels, led by North Atlantic Value, a fund run by JO Hambro and headed by Christopher Mills, had attempted to oust the recently appointed chairman Jerry Karabelas, a long-serving SkyePharma director, and replace him with Mr Thian, the chairman of the filtration-paper maker Whatman. NAV argued the group needed a change of leadership given its recent history of failed deals and wasted cash.

The attempt to install Mr Thian on the board was defeated by 53 per cent of the votes cast at an extraordinary meeting at the Sheraton Park Hotel in London. NAV was backed by the investment groups Insight and Morley. The trio account for 15.25 per cent of the company. Other institutional shareholders who voted in favour of Mr Thian's appointment included Legal & General, UBS and Hermes.

Switzerland's HBM Bioventures, the single largest shareholder, with a 10.2 per cent stake, backed the management. It recently raised its stake from about 9.3 per cent by buying shares from Fidelity, which sold down its holding from 10 per cent to about 2.5 per cent.

A relieved Mr Karabelas said: "We can now get on with running the business for the benefit of all shareholders." SkyePharma will seek to pacify the dissidents by accommodating their wishes in the choice of three new non-executive directors. The company's former chief executive Michael Ashton has left the board, and Keith Mansford and Sir Michael Beavis, both 70, have also said they would retire. Mr Thian had turned down a deputy chairman post at SkyePharma and will not be in the running for a non-executive role.

William Claxton-Smith, of Insight, said: "Losing is disappointing, but the vote means the change we've already seen and hopefully are going to see was enough." The rebels are keen to get new people on to the audit and remuneration committees.

The rebel trio ousted the previous chairman and founder, Ian Gowrie-Smith, and obtained a pledge from the company to get out of a lease for a seven-floor office building in New York.

Several shareholders spoke of their disappointment with the company's performance, whose share price has halved over the past five years, and said they had lost trust in the management. Last year the group announced a deeply discounted rights issue after failing to find a funding partner for its asthma drug Flutiform.

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