There were calls from the floor for the resignation of chairman, Sir Bob Reid, and a claim from one investor that the board was not telling the truth. But despite the evident dissatisfaction of many at the meeting with management following the latest in a series of profits warnings earlier this month, the proposal to sell Freemans to Littlewoods won overwhelming support from shareholders. Proxy votes covering 60 per cent of the share capital returned a 99.8 per cent vote in favour of the proposed sale.
Sir Bob said shareholders could expect to be returned the pounds 410m proceeds from Freemans and the recent sale of the St Enoch's Centre in Glasgow later this year.
He said later that the board had "no plans" to spin off the Selfridges department store. He refused to be drawn on the future of Liam Strong, chief executive, who has faced calls for his resignation.
Justifying the sale of Freemans, Sir Bob said they had reviewed the future of the group against the background of a "maturing" mail order market. Keeping the business was an unattractive option, given its number three position in the market. They needed to cut costs, but that would prove difficult without consolidation in the market, he said. Expansion had also been ruled out because of the unwillingness of rivals to sell or merge "on a sensible basis for us."
That left selling the business as the only option, which would allow the rest of the group to concentrate on department stores and speciality retailing, while reducing head office costs.
But Sir Bob's explanations failed to pacify Frank Gisborne, 72, a Sears shareholder of over five years' standing, who said previous directors had been "somewhat somnolent and disinterested.
"But however bad that management was, the present management is much, much worse. It is absolutely dreadful."
The present incumbents were "erratic and on a runaway train", he said, and addressing Sir Bob added:
"This situation is hopeless and you should go."
But the former British Rail chairman riposted: "When the train runs away, the driver doesn't jump off. He tries to stop it."