Tiphook chief gets four weeks' grace

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The Independent Online
Robert Montague, the embattled chief executive of Tiphook, yesterday prevented his bankers from repossessing his pounds 8m Oxfordshire mansion by persuading a bankruptcy court to adjourn the case. His bankers expressed surprise, as they had expected the hearing to take place today, not yesterday.

Mr Montague is fighting a rearguard action to stop bankers, who are owed pounds 30m, repossessing his 1,300-acre Pusey estate and mansion. He has already put his 139ft yacht, mortgaged to Commerzbank for pounds 7m, up for sale.

Royal Bank of Scotland brought a pounds 2.3m bankruptcy petition against Mr Montague a month ago relating to loans to his country estate. The bankruptcy hearing was set for today, but Mr Montague escaped the attentions of the media circus by getting his hearing put forward a day.

A spokeswoman for Royal Bank of Scotland, which was not represented in court, said last night: 'We discovered late in the day that he (Mr Montague) made representations for the hearing to be adjourned for a month on the basis that he was continuing negotiations with his creditors.

'We were expecting it to happen tomorrow. It looks like it's happened today.'

The judge granted Mr Montague a month's grace in order to continue talks with personal creditors, principally Commerzbank, Barclays, Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds.

Mr Montague wants to negotiate an individual voluntary arrangement, a less punitive alternative to bankruptcy that would allow him to continue as a director of Tiphook.

Bankrupts are automatically barred from being directors of companies.

Even institutional investors in the City who have led the fight against Mr Montague's stewardship of Tiphook were impressed by yesterday's move, which at a stroke prevented a potentially humiliating court appearance being covered by the press and also allowed him a month to continue fending off his bankers.

Mr Montague has relied on support from Commerzbank, which accounts for pounds 15m of his personal loans, against Royal Bank, which yesterday reiterated its determination to make him bankrupt. Caught in the middle is Barclays, which has an pounds 8m mortgage over the Pusey mansion.

Banking sources said: 'There has been a hardening of attitudes among the banks.' This applies particularly to Mr Montague's refusal to hand over his personal assets such as Pusey Hall.

The Tiphook chief spent at least as much renovating the mansion as he spent buying it from the former WH Smith boss, Sir Simon Hornby.

Sources close to Mr Montague suggested that giving up the mansion would represent a humiliating loss of status for one of the most ambitious entrepreneurs of the 1980s, who once sponsored the Conservative Party's winter ball.

Tiphook, recently renamed Central Transport Rental Group, views Mr Montague's personal financial difficulties as his own affair.

Its new chairman, Ian Clubb, told shareholders at September's annual meeting that Mr Montague's presence at the helm was essential for the company's recovery, and sources say this view has strengthened over the past few weeks.

The company is being carefully monitored by its banks, which have waived banking covenants to allow its survival. Last year it made a loss of pounds 330m and it still has debts of pounds 535m against a net worth for the company of pounds 33m.

(Photograph omitted)