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FirstGroup activist wins Schroders’ backing to oust chair

(c) Sky News 2019: <a href="http://news.sky.com/story/firstgroup-activist-wins-schroders8217-backing-to-oust-chair-11747980">FirstGroup activist wins Schroders’ backing to oust chair</a>
 

The activist investor demanding an overhaul of the board and strategy of FirstGroup, the train and bus operator, has been handed a massive boost on the eve of the vote by two of the City's most influential fund managers.

Sky News has learnt that Schroders, which owns just under 9% of the owner of America's Greyhound bus service, and 10% shareholder Columbia Threadneedle Investments will oppose the re-election of FirstGroup chairman Wolfhart Hauser at Tuesday's extraordinary general meeting.

The disclosure of the two fund giants' opposition to Mr Hauser represents a major fillip to Coast Capital Management, which is agitating for a clear-out of the transport company's directors and withdrawal from the UK rail market.

FirstGroup runs the South Western and TransPennine franchises, but has said it will lose more than £200m across the two operations.

Coast, which owns about 10% of FirstGroup, has become engaged in an increasingly fractious battle with the FTSE-250 company, accusing board members of wasting hundreds of millions of pounds of shareholders' money on a botched expansion.

The New York-based hedge fund has been attempting to rally support from other investors ahead of the EGM, although it refused to say on Monday who it had won support from.

Ousting the company's chairman would put many of his colleagues in untenable positions, even if others, such as the chief executive, Matthew Gregory, survive the EGM.

FirstGroup, which wants to strike a deal to run the new West Coast rail franchise, recorded revenues of more than £7bn last year, employing roughly 100,000 people.

In total, it transported 2.2 billion passengers across its various rail and bus operations last year.

Last month, the company said it would sell the Greyhound coach division and pursue a sale, demerger or joint venture at its UK bus business.

Mr Gregory insisted that his plan would enhance shareholder value, and has labelled Coast Capital's demands as "opportunistic".

"By executing the portfolio rationalisation plans we are announcing today, our future emphasis will be on First Student and First Transit, our core contracting businesses in North America.

"We see significant potential to generate long term, sustainable value and growth from the solid platforms these businesses provide in the North American mobility services sector."

Coast Capital's campaign suffered a setback last week when one of its board nominees - former Arriva boss David Martin - effectively withdrew his name from Tuesday's ballot paper.

Schroders, Columbia Threadneedle and Coast Capital Management declined to comment on their voting decisions, while FirstGroup did not respond to a request for comment.