The finance chief of Stobart Group, the infrastructure conglomerate, has been drawn into the bitter fight for its future as it emerged that he had asked for his name to be removed from a statement supporting the company’s chairman.
Sky News has obtained an email sent by Richard Laycock on 29 May which refers to a regulatory announcement made minutes earlier opposing a move by Andrew Tinkler, Stobart’s former chief executive, to seek the removal of chairman Iain Ferguson.
The company’s statement said that Stobart’s “ongoing board” was fully behind Mr Ferguson and objected to Mr Tinkler “destabilising the group at this crucial time”.
At that point, Mr Tinkler remained a board member of Stobart, although he was last week dismissed as a director amid an escalating legal tussle between the two sides.
The revelation that Stobart’s finance chief was not in agreement with the rest of the board threatens further upheaval at a company which is already facing the prospect of boardroom turmoil after a shareholder vote takes place next month.
In his 29 May email to fellow board members, Mr Laycock wrote: “This announcement has been released by Redleaf [Stobart’s public relations adviser] recently.
“To be clear it did not have my approval and I believe it should be amended so that ‘ongoing board’ does not include me in the definition in a number of places.
“I suggest an amendment urgently.”
Mr Laycock, who has been with the Southend Airport-owner for more than a decade, did not succeed in having the statement amended, with one source suggesting that he had been personally involved in drafting it during the preceding three days.
A sub-committee of the board is said to have approved the statement on 28 May and “considered that it…was accurate” despite Mr Laycock’s request to be excluded from the description of the “ongoing board”, according to a person close to Stobart.
The reasons for the finance chief’s eleventh-hour objections to the company’s statement were unclear on Friday.
A vote on whether to remove Mr Ferguson will be held as part of Stobart’s AGM next month, with insiders suggesting that it is “too close to call”.
Invesco, Stobart’s biggest shareholder with a 25% stake, has said it intends to back Mr Ferguson and the rest of the board, while Woodford Investment Management, a smaller but still sizeable investor, is siding with Mr Tinkler.
Philip Day, the billionaire owner of Edinburgh Woollen Mill Group (EWM), has agreed to become Stobart’s chairman if Mr Tinkler’s campaign to oust the incumbent chairman is successful.
Mr Tinkler’s reputation was dealt a severe blow this week, however, with the publication of a leaked email in which he claimed he had been paid “a pittance” and suggested he would have been fared better “with a pair of tits” – a reference to the company’s female former executive chairman.
The rival factions at Stobart have turned the row into one of the City’s bitterest fights for years.
If Mr Tinkler wins the vote, most of the company’s board members, including chief executive Warwick Brady, are likely to quit, while if he is defeated there may be a question mark about whether Mr Laycock will stay on.
A number of senior executives have written anonymously to the board to support Mr Tinkler, underlining the partisan nature of parts of the company’s workforce.
In a string of legal actions against Mr Tinkler, lawyers for the company have alleged that he breached his fiduciary duties and tried to structure a number of corporate deals for his personal advantage.
Stobart has also sued Mr Tinkler and former director William Stobart for nearly €4m in connection with a tax payment linked with the purchase of an engineering firm in 2008.
Mr Tinkler responded by launching his own lawsuit against directors including Mr Brady.
The company has endured a difficult time in recent months, a period in which it aborted a potential takeover offer for Flybe, the regional airline.
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Stobart Group operates across sectors including the supply of biomass for renewable energy generation, civil engineering for rail projects and a domestic airline called Stobart Air.
A spokesman for Mr Tinkler declined to comment on Friday.