Protest dominates Grand Met meeting: Inntrepreneur publicans take rent dispute to shareholders

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The Independent Online
INNTREPRENEUR publicans turned out in force yesterday, protesting about 'excessive rents' at Grand Metropolitan's annual meeting in the morning and then lobbying Parliament in the afternoon.

Sir Allen Sheppard, chairman of Grand Met, joint owner of the Inntrepreneur pub group with Courage, faced several tough questions from publicans amid the 1,000 shareholders at the Grosvenor House hotel in London.

One shareholder in the international food and drinks group said: 'Inntrepreneur is a disaster. It is only by the guarantees of its two parents that it continues at all.' It has lost pounds 57m in the past 30 months and property write-downs have totalled pounds 458m.

He added: 'If pounds 257m (Grand Met's share) was distributed, the dividend might have been raised by 12.5p. Why do we have to put up with such incompetence?'

Sir Allen, who appeared to be very well briefed for a barrage of publicans' questions, replied: 'Those numbers demonstrate the depth of the property market's problems . . . and it also demonstrates how rock solid the rest of Grand Met is.'

David Tagg, the director responsible for the company's property interests, added: 'Rents are negotiated, they are not imposed.'

He handed back to Sir Allen, who said: 'We have to remember we are all business people. We are not running a community programme. Does anyone want to talk about any of our other minor businesses we've got?'

The answer was apparently not, apart from the customary congratulations to the board for doing a 'wonderful job', and a complaint that Grand Met had moved too far away from its British roots.

Jessie Bonner-Thomas, a shareholder, said: 'Our international policy is getting me concerned. You have disposed of loads of companies, leaving - and I quote from an American press report - only the crap in Britain.

'I'm well past my sell-by date, being 21 years your senior, Sir Allen. When are you going to put the great back into Britain?'

Sir Allen, 60, said profits and the balance sheet demonstrated that the company's strategy had worked. 'It was a conglomerate in 28 different types of business. In the last seven years we have decided what we could add value to. We've been pursuing product and not geography.'

On trading, he said: 'I am more encouraged about the prospects for Grand Met and for the world economy than at any time in the past three years. Let me emphasise that the marketplace remains tough, especially in Continental Europe.'

Despite his optimism, however, analysts are holding to forecasts of a 4.8 per cent rise in pre-tax profits to pounds 960m for the year to September. Grand Met's shares fell 15p to 468p.

(Photograph omitted)

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