Wyevale rebels oust chairman but attempt to seize control fails

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The Independent Online

The rebel investor in Wyevale Garden Centres claimed a partial victory yesterday in a long-running battle after a majority of shareholders voted to oust the incumbent chairman and two fellow non-executive directors.

On its second attempt, Laxey Partners, the activist investor that owns 29 per cent of the garden centre group, succeeded in getting its preferred candidate, Robert Ware, elected to the board. But despite managing to achieve David Williams' departure as chairman after less than 10 months in the role, Laxey failed to secure Mr Ware's nomination as Wyevale's chairman.

Instead, Wyevale's non-executive directors appointed Jim Hodkinson, the former boss of New Look who spent most of his career at B&Q. "The board may have lost the battle but they have won the war," Mr Williams said. "They have ... shown themselves to be entirely independent."

The six-month fight between Laxey and the board has pitched the new City against the old, with Laxey garnering support from the US hedge fund Millennium Partners to secure its aim to the dismay of Hermes, the institutional investor that had backed the board.

Investors holding 24.5 million shares voted to remove Mr Williams and his two fellow directors, while those speaking for 20.5 million shares backed the board. Wyevale pointedly said that excluding Laxey and its supporters, more than 95 per cent of shareholders who voted supported the board.

"This shows the farce of short-term money," Mr Williams said. "It was just the sheer weight of money that led to a change that was not necessary."

The vote came after a heated extraordinary general meeting, held in a London hotel. Private shareholders heaped criticism on the investor for not coming up with an alternative strategy to that of the board. David Creed, a small shareholder, said it felt like they were being asked to invest in a "South Sea Bubble". Ian Jessiman, another private investor, said: "It seems to me to be a very underhand way of going about things, as they're simply trying to take over the company without paying for it."

"Waffle, waffle, waffle," was another's response to Laxey's only explanation of its plans: to maximise the retail formats and property opportunities afforded by Wyevale. "It sounds as if their programme is to sell the family jewels and leave the company on a hand-to-mouth basis," Mr Jessiman added.

This was Laxey's second attempt to wrest control of the company via an EGM, after losing the first vote by just 1 per cent. It succeeded in unseating Dianne Thompson and Andrew Lewis-Pratt, two non-executive directors, although it failed to explain what it had against either of them.

Mr Hodkinson's appointment as chairman will raise speculation that he might mount a management buyout. Separately, Wyevale issued a profits warning that knocked its shares.

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