FirstGroup investor repeats call for CEO resignation

FirstGroup’s biggest shareholder Coast Capital LLC has again demanded the resignation of the Aberdeen-based bus and rail giant ‘s chief executive following the £3.3 billion sale of the group’s North American businesses First Student and First Transit to Stockholm-based investment firm EQT Infrastructure.

Coast Capital, a New York-based hedge fund, owns roughly 15% in FirstGroup and had opposed the sale, arguing the price was too low.

The fund on Monday demanded that FirstGroup chief executive Matthew Gregory step down along with directors Warwick Brady and Julia Steyn.

Coast Capital had urged fellow shareholders “to vote against the proposed disposal of the company’s crown jewel assets, First Student and First Transit, unless the terms of the proposal are rapidly and substantively improved.”

However, on May 27, investors holding 61.3% of shares voted in favour of the deal — with 38.7% voting against.

A Coast Capital statement issued on Monday said: “Coast Capital believes that FirstGroup, as a leading provider of public transportation services in the UK, must achieve its potential and become the best-managed and most profitable operator in the industry.

“On a margin basis, the company currently ranks lowest among its peers — as reflected in the share price performance.

“This is reflective of a board which must be materially improved, and a CEO who has failed the company for long enough.

“We propose the following changes to the board:

Voluntary Resignation of CEO Matthew Gregory … Two years ago, Matthew Gregory presented his plans to sell the UK assets of the company and retain the North American operations to maximize value.

“Given the board’s decision to pursue a different path, Coast Capital and fellow shareholders request that Mr. Gregory resign and be replaced by a CEO of industry competency, as soon as possible.

“We are further requesting that shareholders be represented on any such executive committee formed for the purpose of considering such replacement …

“Voluntary Resignation of Board Member Julia Steyn … 

“Given Ms. Steyn’s background as an investment banker and North American transportation specialist, her performance as a board member is disappointing to Coast Capital and our fellow shareholders.

“We note that Ms. Steyn did not vocally advocate the securing of a fairness opinion before voting to sell FGP’s prized North American assets at a discount to book value.

“As a result, there was a decline in share value.

“Furthermore, the disposal of North American operations means that her background is no longer required by FGP, and it would be prudent to replace her with an expert in UK transportation.

“Finally, Ms. Steyn has consistently turned a blind eye to the board’s fiduciary shortcomings and breaches and has demonstrated no independence of thought …

“Voluntary Resignation of Board Member Warwick Brady … 

“Mr. Brady is a board member of eight years whose service has had no positive material impact on the company.

“Coast Capital has identified various other independent board members to be appointed to the board.

“These accomplished individuals enjoy our every industry confidence in their ability to ensure an ethical and operationally successful leadership at FGP in coming years.

“We believe that following the sale of First Student and First Transit (FSFT), the board and management must establish an actionable plan to restore and enhance shareholder value.

“We will be making further recommendations as we continue to seek to improve the performance and value of FirstGroup.”

A FirstGroup spokesperson said: “The successful sale of First Student and First Transit achieved a full strategic value that looks beyond the pandemic.

“The transaction, now approved by a majority of shareholders, enables the group to return £500m of value to all shareholders, address its longstanding liabilities and make a substantial contribution to the pension scheme deficits.

“We consistently engage on a variety of topics with all our major shareholders.

“We have carefully considered Coast Capital’s various outline and initial ideas for the business over time.”

About the Author

Mark McSherry
Dalriada Media LLC sites are edited by veteran news journalist Mark McSherry, a former staff editor and reporter with Reuters, Bloomberg and major newspapers including the South China Morning Post, London's Sunday Times and The Scotsman. McSherry's journalism has also appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Independent, The New York Times, London's Evening Standard and Forbes. McSherry is also a professor of journalism and communication arts in universities and colleges in New York City. Scottish-born McSherry has an MBA from the University of Edinburgh and a Certificate in Global Affairs from New York University.