22 Mar 2013

Tower's board accused of destroying company

10:08 am on 22 March 2013

A disgruntled shareholder has accused the Tower board of destroying the 150-year-old company after selling two of its businesses.

At Thursday's annual meeting in Auckland, Tower directors faced questions over the sales, sharp drops in policy bonuses and the decision to return $120 million in capital to shareholders.

But they were given assurances that the company has a future.

Tower's managing director Rob Flannagan faced some touchy questions from shareholders at his last annual meeting after announcing he was stepping down.

Shareholder Malcolm Stokes said the company which had been around since 1869 was being destroyed. He said Tower had sold its profitable health and investments arms too cheaply.

Tower chairman Steve Smith said the business had been too complex.

During the strategic review the board had looked at keeping its health insurance and investments businesses, but they needed too much money and there were too many barriers to their growth.

The company sold its health insurance to NIB for $103 million and investments to Fisher Funds for $79 million.

Mr Smith said Tower was now in a strong position and refuted the claim that the business had been ruined.

"The board has done a good job and an honest job of looking at the future and making some of the hard decisions that needed to be made."

Mr Smith acknowledged rumours of a sale of its health insurance business, but said he could not comment any further until there was a firm proposal.

Tower director John Spencer admitted that he had opposed the break-up of the company, but changed his mind and it was nothing to do with pressure from GPG, which holds a 34% stake.

"Really they weren't good bedfellows - health, investment and insurance. The sharemarket saw it and I don't think our shares have ever been valued properly."

Mr Spencer said in this case, the sum of the parts are worth more than the sum of the whole.

The Shareholders Association's Alan Best said his group backed the direction of Tower, but shareholders were wary of GPG's intentions.

Shareholders voted to return $120 million of capital from the proceeds of the Tower Health sale.

Chairman Steve Smith said a further repayment from the $79 million sale of Tower Investments was highly probable.

After the meeting managing director Rob Flannagan said he was confident about Tower's future, though could not say if it would still be a life and general insurance company in a year's time.

Tower will announce its half-year result in May.