Lerwill Exits Aegis After Boardroom Row

28 November 2008

LONDON: Aegis Group chief executive Robert Lerwill (pictured) abruptly quit the global media and research business on Thursday after an alleged falling-out with recently appointed chairman John Napier – an outcome that some believe sheds a revealing light on the latter's appointment.

Back in the early nineties during his tenure as ceo of AGB Group – then the world's second largest research company – Napier was known within its corridors of power as the 'Prince of Darkness [a sobriquet for which this writer, a former sweeper of those corridors, can vouch].

Lerwill's shock departure has triggered rumours of  a palace coup, especially as he was a key obstacle to the likely predation of Aegis by French corporate raider and Havas chairman Vincent Bolloré.

The latter currently holds 29.85% of Aegis – nudging the point at which he would be required under UK takeover rules to launch a full-scale bid. A move strongly opposed by Lerwill. 

Napier is now both corporate King and Prime Minister of the media giant - and likely to remain so for the time being. Insiders say that no successor to Lerwill has been named, no headhunters appointed, and there is no timetable in place to fill the ceo hotseat.

The Wall Street Journal quotes "two people familiar with Mr Napier's thinking" who believe a break-up of the group, or quick disposal of its components parts, to be unlikely – if only because of the credit situation and investors' current distaste for media and advertising assets.

The Bolloré/Havas scenario appears to be the one most favoured by the moneymen. On the London Stock Exchange Aegis shares surged 19% to £0.59 last night as investors bet that Napier will be more receptive to a selloff in whole or part.

Lips are tightly zipped all round. Napier ventured only a short written statement, thanking Lerwill for his work. At Groupe  Bolloré a spokesman refused to comment; while Lerwill (unsurprisingly) failed to return phone calls.

Data sourced from Wall Street Journal Online; additional content by WARC staff