Liberty fills new chief executive post: Profits down by pounds 2m as pressure for change in share structure is stepped up

PATRICK AUSTEN, the BTR executive credited with transforming Pretty Polly pantyhose into a pounds 118m business, was yesterday appointed chief executive of Liberty, as the printmaking and retail group bowed to pressure to split the job from the chairmanship.

Brian Myerson, the South African businessman stalking Liberty, welcomed the move, but said he would continue to demand reform of the old-fashioned share structure that protects Liberty from takeover. He cited Austin Reed, the clothing retailer, which yesterday announced plans to enfranchise its non-voting shares. He said he and other shareholders would press for change at the Liberty shareholders' meeting next month.

Mr Austen, 49, chief executive of consumer products at BTR, arrives at Liberty on 1 May, taking over from Harry Weblin, who retains the single job of executive chairman. After 22 years at ICI Fibres, Mr Austen moved to head Pretty Polly in 1983, lifting profits from pounds 1m to pounds 11m before it was sold to Sara Lee in 1990 for pounds 118m. As head of BTR consumer products since 1987, Mr Austen ran Dunlop, Slazenger and Rest Assured.

Liberty reported a fall in pre-tax profits from pounds 5.7m to pounds 3.7m in the year to 31 January, but held the total dividend at 7.2p. Converting and wholesaling profits fell from pounds 3.4m to pounds 1.9m. Retailing profits slumped from pounds 823,000 to pounds 331,000.

Austin Reed made pre-tax profits of pounds 1.2m in the year to the end of January against a restated pounds 800,000. The final dividend was maintained at 3p making 5p (6p).

The proposal to enfranchise 'A' shares and compensate voting shares with a one-for-one scrip issue sent 'A' shares up 25p to 132p and voting shares up 47p to 235p.

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