Woolwich chief quits over `misuse' claim

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The chief executive of the Woolwich building society resigned suddenly yesterday amid allegations of misuse of many thousands of pounds of the society's resources.

The society said that Peter Robinson, who had only been in the job for three months and was widely seen as the driving force behind the society's pounds 3bn bonanza plan to convert into a bank, had "lost the trust and confidence" of its board of directors.

The main allegations concern having landscape gardening and decorative work done to his home in Brasted in Kent on the society's account; as well as borrowing company cars other than his own for the use of his family.

The society's board had not decided last night whether to take legal action against Mr Robinson. The police were not involved, nor had the issue of any pay-off for Mr Robinson been discussed.

The alleged irregularities, believed to involve thousands of pounds, were discovered after an internal audit by the society and are thought to go back over the past few months, including the period directly before Mr Robinson became chief executive at the turn of this year.

The unauthorised landscaping work, allegedly carried out by at least two members of the society's four-strong gardening team, involved regular visits to Mr Robinson's home; the gardeners are usually employed at the Woolwich's headquarters in nearby Bexleyheath. This unauthorised work is believed to have been discovered recently after members of the team reported the unusual demands on their time.

An internal audit confirmed that misuse of society resources had taken place, leading to yesterday's board meeting.

Although the sums involved are not thought to be very large, it is believed that board members, including the chairman, Sir Brian Jenkins, felt that a fundamental principle was at stake.

Sir Brian yesterday refused to give details of the allegations. "Neither Mr Robinson nor the society believe it to be appropriate to comment further at this stage," he said. "The normal business of the society is entirely unaffected. Its assets and funds remain unimpaired."

Mr Robinson's place will be taken by Donald Kirkham, who retired as group chief executive in January. Sir Brian said Mr Kirkham had the full confidence of the board until a new chief executive could be found. He also confirmed that its flotation plans would continue.

Mr Robinson, 54, is married, with two daughters. His departure, after 32 years at the Woolwich, would be a severe setback for the society's plan to demutualise next year. Mr Robinson is widely viewed as the architect of Woolwich's decision to seek a listing on the Stock Exchange.

Yesterday's all-day board meeting led to intense speculation in the City. Some reports suggested that Mr Robinson had found it hard to develop a proper working relationship with Sir Brian, a former Lord Mayor of London and City accountant, who became chairman last year. However, this was firmly ruled out by sources close to the society.

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