Switzerland's Arch-Agitator Strikes Again

By Blackman, Andrew | The Independent (London, England), July 19, 1998 | Go to article overview
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Switzerland's Arch-Agitator Strikes Again

Blackman, Andrew, The Independent (London, England)

FIRST SWITZERLAND - now Britain and the rest of Europe. Martin Ebner, the financier who shook up the staid Swiss financial services industry by telling companies to put shareholders first, is extending his investment strategy abroad.

On Friday he bought 0.4 per cent of HSBC Holdings, the UK's biggest bank, for about $275m (pounds 168m) and raised his stakes in drug-makers Glaxo Wellcome and Hoechst of Germany. He also cut his stakes in the Swiss companies he helped to shape. At the end of June, non-Swiss companies accounted for about 19 per cent of Ebner's Ffr20bn (pounds 2.1bn) portfolio, up from 11 per cent in 1997.

Ebner, 52, a former trader with a penchant for bow-ties, has a reputation for influencing companies in which he invests - and profiting from it. He triggered Credit Suisse's Ffr13.1bn offer for Winterthur Insurance in August, which lifted his personal fortune to more than Ffr2bn. He also helped engineer the $29.3bn merger of Union Bank of Switzerland and Swiss Bank Corp, creating Europe's biggest bank.

Before Switzerland introduced screen-based trading in 1996, Ebner could add a premium to a stock he favoured merely by showing up on the Zurich exchange trading floor. These days, he also throws his weight around company boardrooms.

HSBC shares rose as much as 2.3 per cent to a three-month high of 1,678p after Ebner revealed his stake, raising optimism that he will nudge managers to do what he did at UBS: Focus on the bottom line.

For years Ebner was a thorn in UBS's side, calling on it to improve earnings and reduce the number of board members. He also opposed its plan to introduce a single bearer share, which would have diluted the rights of registered shareholders such as Ebner.

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Switzerland's Arch-Agitator Strikes Again


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