The City grandee who narrowly survived a bid to oust him as chairman of Stobart Group is lining up a succession plan that will see him step down within months.
Sky News has learnt that Iain Ferguson, the former boss of Tate & Lyle, has discussed with boardroom colleagues a proposal to recruit a new chairman before next year’s annual meeting.
A formal timetable has yet to be agreed but a source close to Stobart said this weekend that directors “acknowledged the need to look at the composition of the board”.
Mr Ferguson was re-elected at Friday’s annual meeting with 51.2% of shareholder voting in favour, following weeks of increasingly fractious disputes between the incumbent board and a faction led by Andrew Tinkler, Stobart’s former chief executive.
The re-elected chairman described it as “an important day for corporate governance” but made no reference to his plan to step down.
The row has deteriorated into one of the City’s bitterest fights for many years, and is unlikely to be alleviated by the outcome of the AGM – which was announced 29 hours after it was held in Guernsey.
Mr Tinkler, who was forced to apologise over a sexist email he wrote about Stobart’s former boss, was re-elected to the board by shareholders at the AGM, but was immediately sacked for the second time in little more than a fortnight.
He has the support of Neil Woodford, arguably Britain’s best-known fund manager, and a number of senior managers at the company, which owns Southend Airport.
They have proposed that Philip Day, the billionaire owner of Jaeger and Edinburgh Woollen Mill, replace Mr Ferguson, and are seeking to have him elected to the Stobart board later this month.
Separately, M&G Investments, which is part of the FTSE-100 insurance giant Prudential, has tried to broker a compromise deal by asking the former Asda and Royal Mail chief Allan Leighton to take the reins at Stobart on a temporary basis.
M&G’s proposal would also have seen Warwick Brady, the former easyJet and Ryanair executive, remaining in place as Stobart’s chief executive.
However, the fissures which have been exposed in the company’s warring boardroom mean that that solution is unlikely to be acceptable to Mr Tinkler, Mr Woodford or other opponents of Mr Ferguson.
The emergence of Mr Tinkler’s intention to vote his shareholding against Mr Ferguson’s re-election ignited a series of lawsuits between him and the company.
Lawyers for Stobart allege that Mr Tinkler breached his fiduciary duties and tried to structure 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 former chief executive has been backed by William Stobart, son of the founder of the separate Eddie Stobart haulage business whose trucks bear the family name.
Previously released internal emails have revealed that Mr Tinkler had discussed in recent months with Mr Day the idea of reuniting Stobart Group, an industrial conglomerate, with Eddie Stobart.
Mr Woodford’s 19% stake is in Mr Tinkler’s camp, while Invesco, another big shareholder, voted in support of the existing board.
M&G is understood to have voted against Mr Ferguson’s re-election.
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 Stobart spokesman declined to comment on Sunday.