Nelson Peltz, the veteran corporate raider, appeared yesterday to have won his vicious battle for seats on the board of Heinz, the maker of the iconic tomato ketchup, and looks set to usher in a new round of cost cutting across the company.
Confirmation of the victory - which could take up to six weeks, because votes still have to be verified - makes Mr Peltz, 64, the most successful of the newly energised old guard of activist investors who are shaking up complacent corporate managements in the US.
He has already bounced managers into a new round of cost savings and share buy-backs, and breathed life into a moribund share price. And yesterday insiders indicated he had won one or two boardroom seats for his slate of five candidates.
Having paid $750m (£395m) for a 5.5 per cent stake in Heinz, he is demanding more still more job cuts and more factory closures, and for the savings to be ploughed back into marketing Heinz's famous range of products, from ketchup to ready meals to baked beans. "Our plan is very simple," he said.
He had nominated five board members - including himself and the golfer Greg Norman - to Heinz's 12-strong board to push for change, and Heinz declared the attempt "to secure a voting bloc of five seats and gain creeping control of the Heinz board has been defeated".
Because the holders of about 60 million of Heinz's 300 million shares were still to vote before yesterday's meeting, it will take up to six weeks for an independent group to count the knife-edge vote.
Mr Peltz struck some conciliatory notes when addressing shareholders gathered at the Hilton hotel in Pittsburgh, near where a 25-year-old Henry John Heinz began selling horseradish in 1869. But this has been one of the nastiest battles for boardroom influence that Wall Street has seen in recent years, eclipsing even 70-year-old Carl Icahn's harrying of Time Warner last year.
Mr Peltz vowed to shake up a "clubby, caretaker board" that has mismanaged Heinz.
The latest restructuring will cut 2,700 jobs, or 8 per cent of the workforce, but it was the fifth such restructuring in nine years and received only two cheers from investors, who have seen profits and the share price slide under the chief executive, William Johnson.
Mr Peltz's apparent breakthrough yesterday comes hot on the heels of a victory at Wendy's International, where he cajoled the burger chain to add three of his nominees to the board and consider his plan to sell off its Baja Fresh chain. He has also now taken a stake in Tribune Group, the media group which owns the Los Angeles Times. At Tribune, the Chandler family, the largest shareholder, is already in open revolt against the board and met Mr Peltz to discuss their plan to break up the group.
Mr Peltz is among several veteran corporate raiders who made their billions through the red-in-tooth-and-claw takeover battles of the Eighties, and who have been taking advantage of a new mood of shareholder activism. Mr Icahn ultimately failed to persuade Time Warner investors to accept his alternative management team last year, but he has forced them to justify how the sprawling media conglomerate's businesses in cable television, movies and internet content hang together.
Meanwhile, 89-year-old Kirk Kerkorian has used his 10 per cent stake in General Motors to place Jerry York on the board and agitate for faster cost cutting at the ailing car maker. He also recently bounced GM into talks over an alliance with Renault and Nissan, sending shares to their highest level in several years.Reuse content