Imperial Brands chief smoked out after 'losing investor confidence'

Investors in Imperial Tobacco, one of the world’s biggest cigarette makers, breathed a sigh of relief on Thursday after boss Alison Cooper stepped down.

Just days after delivering a shock profit warning, the Lambert & Butler maker said Ms Cooper would be leaving once a successor had been identified.

The Imperial chief executive’s departure comes as chairman Mark Williamson prepares to quit.

The boardroom shake-up comes after The Telegraph revealed in February that investors were plotting to smoke out [telegraph.co.uk] the FTSE 100 company’s top two executives.

One top-10 shareholder pointed out that the fact Imperial shares rose sharply in the minutes that followed Thursday morning’s announcement spoke volumes about sentiment among investors.

Credit Suisse analysts wrote: “This is a positive as she had lost investor confidence but will also create uncertainty around future strategy, investment and distribution priorities.”

Ms Cooper’s resignation, after nine years at the helm, comes just a day after three City chiefs stepped down [telegraph.co.uk]. Tesco chief Dave Lewis, Aberdeen Standard executive Martin Gilbert and Metro chairman Vernon Hill quit on Wednesday.

It also means the FTSE 100 will have just four female chief executives after Véronique Laury stepped down as boss of retailer Kingfisher last month. The number will rise to five when Alison Rose takes the reins at RBS.

The world’s biggest tobacco companies have overhauled their leadership in the last 18 months amid fears that the rise in popularity of vaping poses an existential threat to their dominant position. [telegraph.co.uk] Last year £100bn was wiped off the stock market value of the largest five firms.

British American Tobacco chief executive Nicandro Durante stepped down earlier this year after facing criticism from shareholders. Marty Barrington, the boss of Altria, the maker of Marlboro in the US, quit in 2018.

Meanwhile, other investors were more unequivocal.

Freddie Lait of Latitude Investment Management, which holds a stake worth around £4m in Imperial, said it was “time for a clean sheet and a new management team”.

“For too many years, Imperial management have obfuscated their financial reporting and continuously moved the goal posts by altering segment reporting and flattering their earnings through accounting decisions.”

He continued: “We hope the new CEO and chairman are in place very soon, as they are overdue.”

Mr Williamson said: “Alison has worked tirelessly and with great energy and passion during her 20 years with Imperial, nine of which have been as CEO, and the board would like to thank her for the tremendous contribution she has made.

“During her tenure as CEO the business has been significantly simplified and reshaped to strengthen its long-term growth potential, and more than £10bn in dividends has been returned to shareholders.

“I am pleased that Alison has committed to continue to lead the business until a successor is appointed, ensuring an orderly transition of responsibilities.”