Sir Ron Brierley hits back at critics

NICK KRAUSE
Last updated 15:47 24/05/2012

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Sir Ron Brierley, who retained his seat on the board of investment company GPG by the narrowest of margins today, has expressed distaste for some institutional investors.

Sir Ron, 74, survived a vote of shareholders at the annual meeting in Auckland today in which he was widely expected to lose his position as a director in the company he founded more than 20 years ago.

Shareholders voted 50.75 per cent to 49.25 per cent to keep Sir Ron on the board.

After the meeting Sir Ron said he knew the voting would be close. "I think it was the right thing for the company and obviously I'm pleased to be on the winning rather than the losing side," he said.

"I've been involved in the corporate world for more than 50 years and a genuine, close vote is very, very rare."

Total votes represented nearly a billion shares, he said.

But he expressed his annoyance with some sections of the institutional investment industry that had backed the New Zealand Shareholders' Association's push to have him voted off the board.

The NZSA maintains that Sir Ron was a negative influence on GPG and that the company had struggled under his chairmanship in recent times.

"The irony is you get institutions with their huge holdings voting on the whim of a particular person ... why don't they give their investors a vote?" he said.

OnePath investment manager Mark Brown, whose fund has a 4.3 per cent stake in GPG, openly supported the NZSA's position to get rid of Sir Ron.

"I am disappointed in the outcome and the fact he feels aggrieved is inconsequential to me really. He's had any number of times to return cash to shareholders," Brown told BusinessDay.

He said Sir Ron's lack of affection for institutional investors was at odds with his behaviour as a director.

"That [the close vote] in itself is a vote of no-confidence but he's in, so he stays in," said Brown.

''If he's disappointed, then I'm quite happy to hear what value he has to a process [of] disentangling an enormous mess that they've created over time."

That "disentangling" he refers to is the winding up of GPG and the gradual disposal of its global investments to realise cash for its shareholders.

Sir Ron was also scathing of the NZS's claims about his lack of attendance at board meetings.

"I've been on this board 22 years and to the best of my knowledge I've only ever missed one meeting and there's a very good reason for that."

That reason, he said, was that he held 50 million shares in this company.

"If anyone's got 50m shares in anything, surely to God they'd attend the board meetings. They'd be the most diligent attender," he said.

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But Association chairman John Hawkins stands by claims that the former chairman missed 30 per cent of the board and sub-committee meetings in 2011.

"This published data (from the GPG 2011 annual report), signed off by the board, shows that Sir Ron missed two board and two subcommittee meetings out of a total of 13 in this period - or put another way 30.76 per cent," Hawkins said.

"I stand by my statement at the meeting and suggest that it is not the Shareholders Association or myself that needs to get their facts straight."

But Sir Ron insisted that information was "misleading".

"That's because you (Hawkins) don't know how to interpret it because you don't have the knowledge and experience to do so."

Many meetings were what he terms five-minute telephone hook-ups which were not "genuine board meetings".

"I've missed one genuine board meeting in 22 years, so thank you for the baseless slur," he said.

Chairman Rob Campbell told the meeting that while he didn't want to be caught in the dispute, the board would have intervened if it needed to address attendance.

"If the board had a concern about the participation at meetings, the contribution to the affairs of the company, we would have said so."

- BusinessDay.co.nz

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