Top jobs on line at Signet

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The Independent Online
THE jobs of three prominent directors of the jewellery retailer Signet, formerly Ratners, may come under threat from dissident shareholders at the annual meeting tomorrow.

Walker Boyd, the company's finance director, and non-executives David Wellings of Cadbury Schweppes and Lee Abraham of Liz Claiborne are all up for reappointment at the troubled company.

Speculation is rife that preference shareholders, led by the South Africans Julian Treger and Brian Myerson of the UK Active Value Fund, will flex their muscles by refusing to endorse the trio.

Although they have not put any alternatives forward for the positions, a spokesman for the fund admitted the directors could be voted down.

Preference shareholders have most of the risk capital in the company but only 30 per cent of the votes. Ordinary shares have fallen so low - to 151/2p at the weekend - that it is now worthwhile for preference shareholders to buy ordinaries just for the voting rights.

Over the last few weeks, Active Value has bought 14 per cent of the ordinary shares, strengthening its position at the AGM. In the past, it has been supported by James Rubin of Sass Lamle Rubin, a New York investment firm, and other shareholders are now thought to have lost patience with the company as well.

At an extraordinary meeting in May, Signet's chairman James McAdam easily saw off the rebels. They wanted him to consider breaking up the group, which owns H Samuel and Ernest Jones here and Sterling Jewellers in the US, and to use the proceeds to pay off pounds 350m in net borrowings, pounds 100m in deferred dividends and the preference shareholders' pounds 350m. The dissidents proposed to give ordinary shareholders 20p per share to encourage them to support the measure.

Mr McAdam vigorously fought the proposal, saying it would not result in shareholders getting the best possible price for their assets. City institutional investors were expecting a restructuring after the company renegotiated its banking facilities in June but it has not yet announced any action.

A spokesman for Signet said the company had received no bids for its businesses, but admitted the chairman was not actively touting for them.

Since they teamed up in 1993, Messrs Treger and Myerson have focused on companies where they think shareholder value can be increased. Their latest target has been Scholl, the foot-care group, which they also wish to sell off.

Not all of their investments are hostile to management, however. In the past, they have rescued Greycoat, the property company, and taken a stake in Shandwick, the financial public relations firm, where they say management is getting on with the job.

About pounds 200m is invested in the Bermuda-based UK Active Value Fund. While it was set up by Messrs Myerson and Treger, for tax reasons, their only positions with it are as advisers.