Stobart Group?’s chief executive has become embroiled in a row over his efforts to identify colleagues seeking the removal of the company’s chairman, deepening the crisis that has engulfed the infrastructure conglomerate.
Sky News has learnt that senior managers at the company have engaged Pennington Manches, a firm of solicitors, to advise them after more than 20 of them decided to support a campaign to oust Iain Ferguson.
Their letter to the board of Stobart Group at the weekend is understood not to have included its backers’ names amid concerns about a “bullying culture” at the company.
It did, however, conclude with a demand that the board should not seek to identify those backing Andrew Tinkler, the former chief executive, in his effort to unseat Mr Ferguson.
Warwick Brady, Stobart Group’s chief executive, immediately contacted a number of top managers to ask whether they were supporting Mr Tinkler, according to two people close to the discussions.
Some of those executives then alerted Mr Tinkler to Mr Brady’s approaches, the people added, prompting him to complain to the Stobart Group board – of which he is still a member.
In a statement issued to Sky News, a spokesman for Stobart Group said: “The company received an undated, unsigned letter from an undisclosed source purporting to be on behalf of unnamed members of the Stobart executive team.
“There has been no further contact.”
The spokesman declined to comment specifically on Mr Brady’s enquiries to managers about the letter to the board?.
A Stobart insider insisted that Mr Brady was entitled to speak to any member of his executive team on any subject, and pointed to a commitment made at the weekend to establish a new whistleblowing hotline.
An ally of the executives suggested, however, that the calls amounted to “harassment”.
The latest developments underline the extent to which one of the UK’s biggest infrastructure groups is rapidly descending into outright internecine warfare ahead of next month’s annual general meeting (AGM).
Mr Tinkler’s crusade to oust Mr Ferguson has already won backing from roughly one-third of investors, including the fund management firm headed by Neil Woodford.
He has attacked statements made by the company about him that he alleges were defamatory, and called on shareholders to support the replacement of Mr Ferguson with Philip Day, the billionaire owner of Edinburgh Woollen Mill Group (EWM).
Last week, the company sued Mr Tinkler and former director William Stobar 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 the chief executive, Warwick 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.
Mr Tinkler, a director and 7.7% shareholder in the company, had said in an earlier statement that his “only objective is to ensure that the company sticks to the agreed company strategy and does not deviate from this, as this will deliver the best returns for shareholders”.
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.
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Invesco, Stobart’s biggest shareholder with a 25% stake, has said it intends to back Mr Ferguson and the rest of the board.
A spokesman for Mr Tinkler declined to comment.