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Tough questioning for Asprey board

The problems at Asprey, the jeweller, continued yesterday when the company was forced to poll its shareholders to ensure the re-election of chief executive Naim Attallah.

On a show of hands at the company's annual meeting, more shareholders voted against Mr Attallah's re-appointment than in favour. The chairman, John Asprey, then ordered a poll in which the proxy votes cast by institutional shareholders carried the vote in Mr Attallah's favour.

The poll results showed that shareholders present at the meeting voted against Mr Attallah's appointment by a ratio of four to one. But the total vote including proxies saw Mr Attallah win 51.8 million votes with only 1.2 million against.

The vote was the culmination of a feisty and occasionally disorganised meeting at which the Asprey board were peppered with questions from angry shareholders demanding explanations for the company's recent dire performance.

In June the company announced a pounds 10m loss caused by pounds 19m of provision relating to stock write-downs and rationalisation costs.

Levelling a question at Mr Attallah, who also follows a literary career, one shareholder said: "You have to have a chief executive who is 24 hours on the job and you haven't."

The question appeared to anger Mr Attallah who is due to retire during 1996. He responded: "I work longer hours than anyone else in the company. I get into the office at 7.30am and I never have any holidays."

Other questions related to the diversification programme which has seen Asprey acquire Mappin & Webb, Watches of Switzerland and other jewellery interests to make the group less reliant on its main Bond Street store.

One asked: "Do you agree that this expansion programme was wrong and that the company should move back to the wonderful business we had in 1990?"

In response, Mr Asprey said that the company had a "wonderful basket of names" but that the recession, the Gulf war, and problems at the Lloyd's insurance market had reduced the spending power of wealthy customers. Mr Attallah added: "If we hadn't taken these steps we would be in an even worse position than we are today."

Another shareholder criticised Asprey's high stock levels, currently standing at pounds 128m, and asked why the company had spent three and a half years making a diamond egg which had failed to find a buyer. The egg, set with 220 carats of diamonds in 18-carat white gold, was described as "a foible and a bauble" by the shareholder. "Was it just to show how clever we were?" he asked. In response to another question, Mr Asprey confirmed that all the buildings and assets of the group were mortgaged to Lloyds Bank.