View from City Road: Dynastic drawbacks for Forte

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The Independent Online
DYNASTY has long since lost top billing on our television screens, but it is still very prevalent in the real world of business involving some of the UK's top companies, particularly Forte.

Sadly, the long-awaited boardroom shake-up has done nothing to change that. Much more needs to be done, including the hiring of a chief executive from outside.

The mainstay of the changes announced yesterday is, in effect, no change at all. Rocco Forte has been chief executive since 1983, and will still assume those responsibilities even though he will adopt the title of chairman. Forte argues that its two-tier level of senior management, with the managing directors of the main hotels business and the branded restaurants side on the main board, renders the need for a chief executive unneccessary.

The vacuum means Mr Forte will in effect be both chairman and chief executive. Large shareholders have well established objections to this combination of roles. And while they allow Marks & Spencer and other strong performers to breach draft Cadbury guidelines they are unlikely to be so forgiving in the case of Forte.

If it ever needs their support in a rights issue or bid, Forte will find it hard to find friends in the City. This will become an even greater problem if the company cuts its dividend, as looks inevitable without a sharp upturn.

It therefore looks as if Forte will soon have to appoint a chief executive. In the eyes of the City, whose confidence in Mr Forte was severely dented by failure to sell Gardner Merchant, the sooner that happens the better.

Unfortunately for Mr Forte, he has the unenviable task of trying to emulate his father's achievements. And Lord Forte, 83, will still be keeping a close eye on the business he built up from a London milk bar from his place on the board as company president.

Fortunately, the two non-executive appointments are of the highest calibre. The achievements of Sir Anthony Tennant at Guinness and Sir Paul Girolami as chairman of Glaxo speak for themselves. Mr Forte should be thankful that, after retiring from Guinness, Sir Anthony will be able to devote more time to the company than most other non-executives.

Forte's shares have outperformed the market by 12 per cent over the past month, helped by sterling's devaluation. It is unlikely that they will sustain that pace.

(Photograph omitted)

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