Shareholders give cool Greenbury a grilling

Steve Boggan encounters swimsuited models and blow-up whales at Marks & Spencer's AGM
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The Independent Online
The US secret servicemen with their Foster Grants and spaghetti earpieces must have wondered what the hell was going on.

If it wasn't the six models in the eye-popping bathing suits or the chanting eco-warriors with their inflatable pilot whales, then perhaps it was the scuffling photographers and security guards that made their trigger fingers twitchy.

They were at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London to protect the US delegation before their transfer to yesterday's Bosnia talks, but the agents could have been forgiven for thinking they had already landed in a war zone. Unbeknown to US logistical planners, a normally sedate, deliberately dull event was sharing their hotel: the Annual General Meeting of Marks & Spencer.

An occasion usually laced with anything but tension, nothing but worthiness and everything but controversy, the 1995 Marks and Sparks AGM could have been scripted by Sam Peckinpah and directed by Quentin Tarantino.

Caught in the crossfire was Sir Richard Greenbury, the man hailed on Monday as slayer of the boardroom fat cats but castigated by Thursday for his U-turn on taxing share options.

Outside the main hall, everyone wanted a word in his ear. The Environmental Investigation Agency with their 30ft blow up whales wanted to know why M&S buys fish from the Faroe Islands despite the islanders' continued practice of slaughtering thousands of pilot whales.

And the designer Liza Bruce, accompanied by the six scantily-clad models, wanted to know why the company was selling pounds 20 swimsuits that looked suspiciously similar to the designs she sells to a limited clientele for pounds 120. Yesterday, her lawyers issued writs alleging copyright, suggesting that they, too, would like a word in Sir Richard's shell-like.

Hundreds of shareholders filed in incredulously. "It isn't usually like this," said Audrey Amor, a shareholder and former employee from Loughton in Essex. "I expected a little bit of controversy over Sir Richard's comments on share options, but nothing like this."

Inside the meeting, the atmosphere was cooler. Sir Richard chose not to wear his "If You Can't Stand the Heat, Get Out of the Kitchen" apron and he remained seated, explaining to shareholders that he was about to have a hip operation.

The questions came thick and fast.

There was the woman who had flown in from Belfast to elicit from the pounds 809,000-a-year chairman an answer as to why her brothers found it simply impossible to buy lightweight turquoise trousers from M&S before their winter holidays.

And there were the boys whose 13th birthday gifts of M&S shares entitled them to attend and ask why the company didn't sponsor a Premiership football team.

Sir Richard coolly dealt with his inquisitors before issuing a strong denial that the company had copied the swimsuit design, arguing that the expert who perfected the technique for dying the fabric had confirmed that M&S staff approached him about it before Ms Bruce did.

Of his decision to chair the CBI committee into boardroom pay, he said he had no regrets, although he felt he had had a mauling by the press.

"I threw one or two tantrums myself," he said. "But I have come out of it unscathed so far."

And not many people can say that less than 24 hours after appearing in the House of Commons in a pink shirt and red pinnie.