Outlook: A blow to wider share ownership

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The Independent Online
THERE CAN be no more damaging a blow to the cause of wider share ownership than the fiasco that is Thomson Travel. This is a company which surfed to the market last year on the kind of razzmatazz and wave of enthusiasm normally associated with a major privatisation.

Thomson's consumer brand name, together with the promise of 10 per cent discounts to members of its so-called "Founders club", dragged in an army of 570,000 small investors. The issue was priced at the top of the expected range and was five times over-subscribed.

Now the hordes of Ambre Solaire-wielding new investors have been left feeling distinctly sunburned. Things are so bad round at Thomson that a quick trip to the travel agent will reveal even their shareholder perks to be worthless. Thomson is already discounting millennium holidays for a good deal more than 10 per cent.

As for the shares, they stand at a fraction of their issue price after a series of self-inflicted profits warnings which, unbelievably, include two in the past six weeks alone. The chief executive, Paul Brett, has already been sacrificially thrown overboard. Others will have to follow.

Thomson can bleat all it likes about a highly competitive holiday market, but the truth is that its demise is more down to management failure. If this is not the case, where are the warnings from rivals such as Airtours and First Choice? Actually both are doing fine.

Long regarded as arrogant in the industry Thomson's managers have never adapted to life as a public company. Mr Brett's threat to flood the market with cheap holidays in order to protect Thomson's market leadership was the kind of folly only a privately controlled group can afford.

Two things must happen as a matter of urgency. The first is that the chairman, Michael Brown, should be replaced with a more independent non- executive. A long time Thomson manager, his ties with the founding family are too close for comfort. The second is that the Thomson family should either sell its remaining 19 per cent stake, making the group fully independent, or take the company back into private hands. Given the high-handed attitude displayed by this shower so far, they seem unlikely to do either.