Littlewoods bid targets tough dynasty

Chris Blackhurst on the fight for a family's troubled inheritance
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If Barry Dale is to succeed in his audacious pounds 1.1bn bid for Littlewoods, he must persuade the members of the Moores family to part with their lucrative legacy.

Since Sir John Moores, the group's legendary founder, finally handed over day-to-day control in 1982, aged 86, they have been struggling to come to terms with his creation. With his death in 1993, that battle has intensified. None of Sir John's four children or those of his brother, Cecil, has been willing or able to rise to the task of managing the business.

Reluctantly, the Moores had to admit defeat and look to outsiders. But while those executives, notably Sir Desmond Pitcher, produced outstanding results, at times they have not enjoyed a happy relationship with Littlewoods' owners. The feeling of above and below stairs was never far away. Ahead of board meetings, the leading family shareholders would have their own, perhaps more significant gathering. Non-family directors would all the time be looking over their shoulders at what the family was thinking and doing.

While the Moores exhibited none of Sir John's business acumen, they have, at times, shown themselves to have just as much of his renowned ruthlessness. The son of an Eccles bricklayer, he started the business with Britain's first football pools in 1923. Nine years later, he expanded into mail order, and after that, into budget clothing.

When that empire appeared threatened after he had retired and his son, Peter, had taken over as chairman, the old man did not hesitate. Peter had to go: Sir John turfed out his own son and returned to the helm.

In the past 12 months, Peter has sold all his shares; another relative, John Moores III, has reportedly quit; Prodip Guha, the highly regarded deputy chief executive, was sacked after an unauthorised meeting with a journalist; Mr Dale went in March, after the family held a secret council of war at the Savoy Hotel in London. Then, Sir Desmond also left.

Worse has been the damage dealt to Littlewoods' image by the revelation that private detectives had been hired to spy on senior staff. This virtual paranoia on behalf of some members of the family has not gone away. At its heart was the feeling that the hired help had become too powerful.

Against the turmoil has been the backdrop of a slump in the fortunes of Littlewoods' safest bet for profits, the pools division. Only two days ago, yet more redundancies were announced as the group tries to come to terms with the burgeoning National Lottery. The stores have not been performing well, as rivals have slashed their own prices. Profits are at best, merely standing still. Now, may be the time, finally, to take the money and call it a day.

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