Business Analysis: Demolishing the Statutes of Liberty ; West End Store Faces Uncertain Future as Property Firm Bids to Reverse Decline. Clayton Hirst Reports

Article excerpt

The beleaguered institutional shareholders in London's famous West End store, Liberty, have become so used to the family feuding and boardroom culls that they have taken to making up jokes about it. The latest goes something like this: "Why are the carpets fitted in the Liberty department store red? To hide the blood on the floor."

For nearly a decade, the 125-year-old store has been the centre of fractious rows which turned the company from a profitable retailer, once a byword for elegance, into a loss-making also-ran.

Now the Stewart-Liberty family - the descendants of the founder, Arthur Lasenby Liberty - have had enough. Through their financial advisers, they've made it clear that, if they were offered the right price, they would sell. On Tuesday Marylebone Warwick Balfour (MWB), a small, but ambitious property company, is expected to take up the challenge and offer about 300p a share, valuing Liberty at pounds 68m.

If MWB's bid is successful, it will end one of the most fractious affairs in British corporate history.

In the 1980s, Liberty was at peak performance. The Stewart- Liberty family was in the driving seat and the company was making record profits. Liberty almost became a challenger to its better- known rival, Harrods. But the death in 1990 of the chairman, Arthur Stewart-Liberty, the great-nephew of the founder, triggered a pantomime sequence of quarrels which was to send Liberty into permanent decline.

Arthur's two sons - Oliver and Richard - were showing a keen interest in a career at the store. While both were headstrong, they had radically different views on Liberty. Oliver, director of the wholesale division, was the more conservative, and he felt that Liberty should concentrate on its traditional customer base. On the other hand Richard, the merchandising director, was the polar opposite. Known for his outlandish parties, his vision was to turn Liberty into a haven of contemporary design.

When Arthur died, chairman and chief executive Harry Weblin was cast as baby-sitter as the two sons quarrelled over the store's direction. In the meantime, Mr Weblin himself presided over a plan to open 21 Liberty stores in the provinces, that failed to attract any more than a trickle of customers.

As a result, profits slumped and the firm caught the eye of Brian Myerson, the brash son of a South African diamond merchant. In late 1991, fresh from shaking up clothing firm Aquascutum, where he had earned his tag as a "corporate raider", he started to build a stake in Liberty. By 1992 he owned 15 per cent having bought shares at about 430p (the shares stood at 257.5p at the close of trading on Friday).

This unsettled the Stewart-Liberty family, which was now effectively headed by Elizabeth, Richard's and Oliver's stepmother. Her fears were confirmed in July 1992 when Mr Myerson called an extraordinary general meeting. He suggested that the portion of Liberty shares which did not carry any voting rights should be "enfranchised" giving the holders - of which Mr Myerson was one - full rights. He popped up again at the company's 1992 interim results to, in the words of one insider, "have a go at the board".

The interim results weren't good, with a 61 per cent fall in profits. So Mr Myerson declared that this "entirely vindicated his concern about the way the group is run" and he promised to continue being a "pro-active shareholder". His efforts were rewarded in 1993, when he won his first victory. For some time he'd been unhappy with Mr Weblin's dual chairman and chief executive role. So, he managed to persuade the board to draft in a separate chief executive - Patrick Austen.

By now Mr Myerson and the Stewart-Liberty family were at loggerheads. One after another Elizabeth, Oliver and Richard trotted in to see Mr Myerson to air their concerns. They did not come out happy.

Says one source close to the company at the time: "Myerson was intent on hurling bombs at the management. …