Sheppard takes his final shareholder grilling

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The Independent Online
As swansongs go, it was hardly a triumph and surely not what the proud Lord Sheppard had in mind. The chairman of Grand Metropolitan, who retires from the company next week after 21 years with the group, including the last nine as chairman, was given a thorough grilling by shareholders at his final annual meeting at London's Grosvenor House Hotel yesterday.

Shareholders literally queued up to express their disenchantment at the company's under-performance during his tenure. All the old ghosts of Lord Sheppard's Grand Met past came back to haunt him: the Inntrepreneur debacle, the Burger King "clocking off" scandal, share price under-performance and, not least, excessive boardroom pay.

As Peter Eve, one shareholder and regular Grand Met inquisitor, remarked to the pounds 1m-a-year Lord Sheppard: "Still, this is your last appearance in the expensive seats."

The most moving question came from Moira Mullen who spoke movingly and eloquently of her plight as a victim of Grand Met's Inntreprenuer scheme under which pub tenants were encouraged to take out long leases on their pubs. Close to tears and in a voice quivering with emotion she described how she and her family had been forced out of their pub, her husband declared bankrupt and the family left to exist on income support.

"We feel bitter and let down by the company," she said. "I would not wish what happened to us on my worst enemy."

She described Lord Sheppard's remarks at the time about "incompetent operators" as insulting. Lord Sheppard said he withdrew those remarks and admitted he had made his point badly.

Another shareholder criticised the poor performance of the company's share price, which has underperformed the FT-SE All Share index by 7 per cent during Lord Sheppard's tenure.

She said: "Since the share split in 1992 we are worse off today. Why has Grand Met been left behind in a bullish market? I question the wisdom of the board."

Mr Eve wondered aloud whether shareholders could look forward to a period when Grand Met was not "a tail-end Charlie to the FT-SE index." Another said it was appropriate that the company's annual meeting should be held on Shrove Tuesday as it was all about the sins of the past.

Lord Sheppard did have some supporters. One said he was retiring "well before his sell-by date".

George Bull, who will succeed Lord Sheppard as chairman, paid tribute to his predecessor's "vision, determination and his fantastic leadership". "We've come a long way in the last nine years," he said. A polite round of applause followed.

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