Fitter resigns from Sovereign

The man behind the bid to topple Chey Tae-won at SK Corp steps down.

In what may constitute the epilogue to the battle between Sovereign Asset Management and Korea's SK Corp, the CEO of Sovereign yesterday stepped down.

James Fitter had been the public face of Sovereign's battle with SK Corp. In briefings with journalists, the CEO always made eloquent arguments about corporate governance and the other issues that Sovereign was fighting for in its long-running battle to oust Chairman Chey Tae-won.

Sovereign first invested in SK Corp in March 2003 and built a stake of just under 15%. However, after numerous legal battles, and a PR blitz, Sovereign failed to achieve its goal of having Chey removed. With the company's performance and its dividend payout hitting a record and likewise with concrete improvements made to the board's corporate governance, Chey managed to win a key AGM vote this year that saw 60% of shareholders renew his term as Chairman. Subsequent to this Chey's outstanding prison sentence was overturned (a sentence that had been mandated for his role in the SK Global fraud) and the court made clear that a key reason for its decision was the concrete improvements he was making in the company's corporate governance.

This court verdict effectively ended Sovereign's bid to oust Chey and late last month it sold its stake in its entirety. Sovereign - a private investment vehicle controlled by the Chandler brothers of New Zealand - netted about $910,262 for each of the 838 days it held SK Corp's stock (ie a profit of about $762.8 million). Based on the timeframe involved, this makes it the most lucrative investment ever in Korea - a fact that should make Fitter proud.

During Fitter's time as CEO, he moved Sovereign's headquarters from Monaco to Dubai, but most of his energies went into the SK Corp investment. After some initial coyness about talking to the media, Fitter changed tack and became very vocal with journalists about Sovereign's position. The former head of emerging markets research at Deutsche Bank pursued a very aggressive strategy to try and persuade (in particular) other foreign investors that the best course of action would be to have Chey removed.

Apart from SK Corp, Fitter made one other high profile investment in Korea. Stakes in LG Electronics and LG Corp were purchased - although unlike with SK Corp, Sovereign made a point of being supportive of management.

As the man most associated with the SK Corp investment, it is natural that Fitter should decide to step down in the wake of Sovereign's failure to win the battle (albeit exiting at a massive profit).

In a statement he stressed: "I am delighted to have been part of the team at Sovereign that has done so much to demonstrate the importance of responsible investing and to advance the boundaries of corporate governance in Asia."

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