We were promised the corporate equivalent of a heavyweight encounter in the Ali/Frasier mould: the activist challenger going into the ring to knock the crown off the head of one of the City’s biggest firms. Finally, after months of to-and-fro, briefings and rumours about the London Stock Exchange (LSE), it came down to this: a scattering of people in a dimly lit room in the Southwark iteration of the Hilton hotel.
It could have been the undoing of the chairman, Donald Brydon, but even some of the LSE board were too busy washing their hair to attend. The aggressors, The Children’s Investment (TCI) fund, were there, somewhere, in the gloom, but did not make themselves known. Sir Chris Hohn, TCI’s famous leader, apparently also had something more important to do – having called the meeting himself – and didn’t attend.
The arm wrestle, since it began in October, has been all about the clash of FTSE 100-sized egos, but the LSE board managed to get through their entire preamble without mentioning the elephant not in the room: the hedgie-who-must-not-be-named.
With the floor open to questions there was a serious possibility the board would go unchallenged during what was supposed to be the corporate governance clash of the year, pace Mike Ashley. Finally, some movement from the floor, and the first of a mere three questions.
It took the intervention of Aubrey Gordon Franklin, a small investor from Peterborough, to give some semblance of a showdown. This defender of the shareholder class took up the fight in Hohn’s absence, accusing Brydon of presiding over a “very sorry affair which has brought considerable opprobrium on the company”. As he got into his stride Gordon Franklin started landing some punches: “stitch-up”, “Old boys’ network”, “the establishment” has won.
Of course, it was too little, too late – in truth about two-thirds of the vote was already in by Saturday, as the big boys weighed in with their proxies and backed the chairman. So it was not with a bang, but with a whimper, that this chapter in the saga ended. A short speech from Brydon, and the sound of a single, quickly muffled, clap.
Aubrey, our fearless hero, clearly made an impression on Brydon, who descended from the heights of the stage after the meeting was closed to defend his record. Every firm he had chaired had beaten the stock market, Brydon said; his performance at Smiths Group was “very pedestrian” came the withering response. Brydon beat a hasty retreat to the welcoming gaggle of LSE bosses, bruised but undefeated.
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