January 28, 2011 / 3:02 PM / 6 years ago

NEWSMAKER-Reclusive rebel investor closes in on F&C

5 Min Read

* Press-shy Bramson keeps tactics the same

* F&C saga shows similarities to past boardroom battles

By Tommy Wilkes

LONDON, Jan 28 (Reuters) - Edward Bramson may wake up next week Friday to find himself at the helm of F&C Asset Management FCAM.L, one of Britain's oldest fund firms, after pulling off his trademark tilt for control by stealth.

The New York-based investor, founder of Sherborne Investors SIAGS.L, has a long record of quietly accumulating shares in weakened companies, wooing key investors and staking sudden claims for control without much of a laid-out strategy.

Critics argue the self-styled turnaround expert has failed to offer an alternative strategy to merit increased control at F&C, a company he says needs more conservative financial policies to regain an edge over better-managed peers.

But the press-shy investor, who is shunning all requests for interviews, has a habit of getting his way.

"He did it without communicating with anyone ... just one day this purchase appeared and they were there," said one person who headed a company Bramson previously took over.

Guernsey-domiciled Sherborne, F&C's largest shareholder with a 17 per cent stake, wants to remove Chairman Nick MacAndrew and has won over third-largest shareholder Aviva Investors (AV.L) for its plans. [ID:nLDE6BF247]

A war of words has escalated since then, with both predator and prey questioning the other's strategy and trying to drum up enough support before a shareholder vote on Thursday.

"I came away with no clear idea of what his strategy was. He has made absolutely nothing clear other than the fact he wants to become chairman," Alain Grisay, CEO at 140-year old fund house F&C, who has met Bramson twice, told Reuters.

Sherborne, in its defence, says it will only be in a position to set out its strategy when Bramson, described by his critics as elusive, joins the board.

The 59-year old has taken charge and sold on his stake in three UK firms since 2003 -- marketing company 4imprint (FOUR.L), chemicals group Elementis (ELM.L) and communications company Spirent (SPT.L).

Shares in these UK ventures were sent soaring in the months after the boardroom coups and remain higher since his exit. But not everything Bramson touches turns to gold.

Ampex, a U.S. electronics company Bramson took over in 1987, filed for Chapter 11 in 2007, while shares in Nautilus (NLS.N), a gym equipment manufacturer he still chairs, have dived 75 percent since Sherborne acquired a stake in July 2007.

Sherborne declined to comment.

Effective Control

UK-born Bramson left London for New York in the mid 1970s to pursue his corporate turnaround ambitions. He has since married a woman he met there and picked up a New York accent, a source close to Bramson said, describing him as "quiet, reserved and very bright."

A study of his past tactics reveal remarkable similarities to how he is operating now.

Bramson began buying a 14 per cent stake in Spirent Communications in mid-2006, before calling an EGM for Dec. 22 with the backing of asset manager Artemis and Credit Suisse.

Spirent fought back against claims the company was underperforming and -- like F&C -- accused Bramson and Sherborne of lacking a strategy, more interested in financial engineering and less in the long-term interests of the company.

Yet in a closely-fought vote, Sherborne triumphed.

The F&C punt reconnects Bramson and some of Spirent's key investors including Edinburgh investment manager Aberforth Partners, which owns 2.82 per cent of F&C, and Artemis, which holds 4.43 percent of F&C and 4.8 percent of Sherborne.

By March 2007, Spirent CEO Anders Gustafsson had resigned, giving Bramson effective control.

Three years earlier, Bramson played a similar hand at chromium maker Elementis, taking over as chairman in June before moving into the CEO role in August.

Ian Brindle, Sherborne's chairman, remains non-executive director at both Spirent and Elementis and is now seeking appointment to F&C. (Editing by Sinead Cruise and David Holmes)

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