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ALEX BRUMMER: The indomitable spirit is missing at Morrisons

ALEX BRUMMER: Football may be coming home, but the indomitable spirit is missing at Morrisons

Morrisons needs a Stuart Rose. Chairman Andy Higginson and the board allowed themselves to be sweet-talked into accepting the bid from Softbank and Koch Retail-backed Fortress with loose commitments to maintain Ken Morrison’s legacy.

Instead, they could have repelled the swarming private equity bidders and made the case for the Bradford-based supermarket group to go it alone.

As fine and dandy as that may be, Higginson and chief executive David Potts (both Tesco exiles) decided that public to private is inevitable, and the best way to sell it to the critics is to sugar the pill.

Meek: The Morrisons board could have repelled the swarming private equity bidders and made the case for the Bradford-based supermarket group to go it alone

Now they are in a real tizzy, because with the entry of Jeffrey Epstein-tainted Apollo, they looked to have choked off an auction before it had even begun. John Connolly, of security group G4S, at least had the nous to let an auction run its course to the bitter end before selling out to a preferred bidder.

The idea that the only option open to a board when faced with an unsolicited, debt-fuelled public-to-private bid is to cry surrender and moan about Brexit and the low valuation of UK stocks, is poppycock. 

When Philip Green, riding high on the success of Arcadia and ownership of BHS, bid £9.1billion for Marks & Spencer in 2004, the non-executives on the board rose up in anger in defence of the special place the clothing and food group holds in the nation’s affections. 

In a weekend coup, Belgian chairman Luc Vandevelde and chief executive Roger Holmes were ousted, and non-executive Paul Myners installed as chairman and former M&S insider Stuart Rose installed as chief executive.

Myners went on to rally shareholder support at a general meeting and Rose delivered £1billion in profits. 

In spite of torrid times, M&S is still around and under its current leadership of Archie Norman and store veteran Steve Rowe has rediscovered its mojo. 

The Morrisons board should have turned the tables on the flaccid response of Higginson and Potts.

Senior non-executive Rooney Anand had an excellent spell as chief executive of Greene King, steering it through all manner of crises in the hospitality industry to become Britain’s biggest publican.

It was his duty to put some steel into the backbone of the Morrisons board and recognise that the company is as important to the North as M&S is to most of the High Street.

As chairman of at least two private equity-backed enterprises, Anand might have found it difficult to make the case for staying public. 

Another non-executive, Kevin Lovelock, a former executive at Unilever where a private equity offer from Kraft-Heinz was repulsed, might also have been more robust.

Seasoned retailer Susanne Given, having worked for ‘digitally native brands’ and as chairman of recently floated Made, might have been regarded as the ideal person to plot an alternative course rather than joining the hallelujah chorus.

Steadfast resistance by non-executives Shriti Vadera and John Varley provided the ballast which helped chief executive Pascal Soriot hold off Pfizer in 2004.

Football may be coming home, but the indomitable spirit is missing at Morrisons.

Fight back

As Britain seeks to compete with New York, Singapore and Hong Kong in the battle to bring initial public offerings to London it needs help. 

The preference of UK long investors is that the current one share-one vote structure remains the gold standard.

But the invasion of these shores by private equity sharks and overseas bargain hunters risks scaring off newcomers such as fintech pioneer Wise, due to be introduced to the market this week. 

The decision by the Financial Conduct Authority to embrace dual structures is not ideal. But with London losing out in the race for IPOs in the period 2015-2020, the City needs to change.

Green light

At £250million, the Hydrogen One Capital Growth Fund is well above the minimum new proposed requirement of £50million (up from £700,000) for a share quote on London’s main market.

The chances of the fund getting off to a good start are enhanced by the decision of billionaire Jim Ratcliffe to inject at least £25million as a cornerstone investor.

As someone who carved his fortune out of polluting industries such as oil refining, it is good that Ratcliffe is going green.

All he needs to do now is repatriate from Monaco and become a UK taxpayer again.

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