Business veteran and former Asda boss Allan Leighton has been lined up to take over as chairman at London Southend airport owner Stobart Group amid a bitter power struggle engulfing the firm.
Top fund manager M&G – which has a 5 per cent stake in Stobart – has put forward Leighton to lead the FTSE-250 listed company as interim chairman in a bid to avoid an aggressive showdown at its AGM this week.
Leighton, 65, who is regarded as one of the City’s most accomplished businessmen, would take over from current chairman Iain Ferguson if he gets the approval of shareholders.
M&G’s intervention comes amid a massive battle over who should take control of the business.
Former chief executive Andrew Tinkler, 53, ganged up with fund manager Neil Woodford among others in May to oust Ferguson, 63, and replace him with Philip Day, the billionaire owner of Edinburgh Mill.
His bid to kick out Ferguson, who has been chairman for five years, resulted in an all-out boardroom war with both sides lashing out at each other with vicious exchanges.
William Stobart, son of the founder of the separate Eddie Stobart haulage business, has spoken out in support of Tinkler and has accused Stobart of ‘a vindictive campaign’. William Stobart is Tinkler’s childhood friend and former brother-in-law.
Stobart is now largely an infrastructure group but also runs Carlisle Lake District Airport and Irish regional airline Stobart Air.
But board members Andrew Wood and John Coombs have threatened to resign if Ferguson goes, and claim they had the backing of major shareholder Invesco.
The bizarre spat has even dragged in former member of pop band Boyzone, Ronan Keating, who is a friend of Tinkler’s. Keating, 41, tweeted: ‘Absolutely disgraceful what they are saying about our friend Andrew Tinkler. The company would not be where it is without him.’
The acrimonious row has seen Tinkler kicked off the board and accused of trying to cash in £30m of shares and destabilising the group. Stobart has also made allegations against him relating to last year’s failed takeover of airline Flybe.
Stobart and Tinkler are now suing each other. Stobart launched legal action against Tinkler over a disputed tax arrangement last month with Tinkler fighting back with claims he was suing the board for defamation. He has also been accused of using sexist language about his former female boss and complained of earning a ‘pittance’.
Father-of-two Tinkler earned £5.5m last year as chief executive. He has a mansion in Cumbria thought to be worth around £3m and owns dozens of racehorses.
If M&G’s plans win shareholder approval, Leighton is expected to lead the business for a number of months, paving the way for Day to take the top job. Day could take a seat on the board as part of the deal but he will likely be a non-executive director. Chief executive Warwick Brady, 54, is expected to remain in place at the helm. Renowned for implementing major turnarounds, Leighton is chairman of The Co-operative Group, Peppa Pig-owner Entertainment One, chemicals group Element Materials, Matalan and Wagamama restaurants.
A spokesman for Stobart said: ‘Our largest shareholder, Invesco and other significant institutional investors have, and continue to support, our chairman Iain Ferguson and the ongoing board.
‘Stobart Group’s advisers have been working closely with key shareholders to establish solutions that will enable us to achieve this aim of uniting the shareholder base in order to safeguard our long-term prosperity.’