U.K. Funeral Boss Ousted After Tussle With Activist Phoenix

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A top British funeral executive was removed from his position following a war of words with an investor, in the latest drama for an industry that’s been rocked by accusations of excessive price rises for years.

In a vote on Thursday, Dignity Plc shareholders backed Phoenix Asset Management Partners Ltd.’s proposal to oust Executive Chairman Clive Whiley, after the activist accused the 60-year-old of failing to address unspecified issues within the company’s prepaid services. The move comes even after influential adviser Institutional Shareholder Services recommended holders vote against the change.

About 55% of votes supported Wiley’s removal, Dignity said in a statement. Shareholders also backed a second proposal to name Phoenix’s chief investment officer, Gary Channon, as an executive director. Votes cast represented about 88% of the company’s issued share capital.

“We thank our fellow shareholders for their support,” Phoenix said in an e-mailed statement. “We now have to show our ourselves worthy of it and we will get straight to work.”

Shares of Dignity rose as much as 5% in London trading.

Lengthy Probe

A proposal was put to Phoenix to keep Whiley on as chairman in a non-executive capacity, with Channon becoming interim chief executive until a permanent appointment could be made, Dignity said.

“Unfortunately, it has not been possible to reach such a compromise,” said acting Chairman Dean Moore. Moore and two other independent directors will quit their roles, though Moore aims to serve a notice period given he is also interim executive finance director.

Phoenix’s successful campaign comes just weeks after another revolt by shareholders led to the ouster of Danone Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Emmanuel Faber.

Britain’s undertakers are reeling from a competition probe that began in 2018. The bereaved sometimes face little choice but to accept the services of their local funeral director -- often Dignity or rival Co-Operative Funerals Ltd. -- and are insensitive to cost due to their vulnerability, the Competition & Markets Authority warned.

Some funeral directors even seek to establish relationships with palliative-care services with a view to “chanelling dying patients, or their relatives, toward their services,” the CMA said in December.

Covid Spike

A spike in the death rate, like the one seen during the pandemic, would ordinarily have been beneficial for a funeral company’s earnings. That hasn’t been the case with Covid-19 as government restrictions on gatherings meant services had to be scaled down.

Dignity’s full-year adjusted pretax profit fell about 19% year-on-year, even as annual deaths rose 14% to 663,000 -- the biggest total since 1918, according to the Office for National Statistics. Dignity shares have failed to recover from 2018’s 60% slump.

U.K. Funeral Boss Ousted After Tussle With Activist Phoenix

Phoenix wants Dignity to consider separating its crematoria business and listing it on the stock market at an estimated valuation of about a billion pounds ($1.4 billion), something the undertaker says is already under consideration.

Dignity says it’s the largest provider of such services in the U.K., having performed 74,500 cremations last year, representing about 11% of total estimated deaths in the country. Nearly 80% of the deceased are cremated in Britain, according to the CMA.

“Shareholder frustration is understandable three years after competitive and regulatory pressure became evident,” ISS said in a report ahead of the vote, but added that there was a lack of evidence to back up Phoenix’s claims with the proposal coming just months before Dignity was due to announce the results of a strategic review.

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