By Scott Wright

FIRSTGROUP has found itself on the receiving end of a tirade from high-profile investor Robert Tchenguiz, who has claimed the company’s chief executive and chairman hold conflicting views over plans to streamline the bus and rail giant.

Tchenguiz, who describes himself as the person with the largest individual economic interest in FirstGroup, declared the management of the company “misled or at best confused the public” when it reported its interim results to the market last week.

He claimed statements made on Thursday point to a “clear disconnect” between chief executive Matthew Gregory and chairman David Martin over the future strategy for its bus and rail businesses, which are based in the UK and North America.

The intervention has reignited a bitter argument between the board of FirstGroup and some vocal investors, who have long campaigned for its North American businesses – Greyhound, First Student and First Transit – to be sold off to maximise returns for shareholders.

Greyhound is an inter-city coach service, First Student operates school buses, and First Transit provides contract bus and shuttle services to the likes of airports and hospitals.

Tchenguiz claimed that “ambiguous, confusing and misleading” statements made on Thursday on the day the company unveiled a first-half loss of £187 million suggest it “might still be committed to the defunct strategy” led by former chairman Wolfhart Hauser, who stepped down following an unsuccessful boardroom coup in June.

In a statement issued to the stock market yesterday, Tchenguiz argued that while current chairman Mr Martin said last week that he was “looking at all options” for the business, Mr Gregory told analysts last week that he views First Student and First Transit as “our core contract businesses in North America”.

“These statements are in direct contradiction with one another and must be reconciled immediately by the chairman,” said Tchenguiz, who holds a 4.7% economic interest in FirstGroup.

“Key shareholders are not aware of what the strategy is – they have publicly on numerous occasions asked for a sale of the US business. Such a step would enable the company’s operations to thrive under different, and more competent, ownership, and would release an important amount of value to investors.”

He added: “Clearly, the rationale of a vibrant US business which is being managed in Aberdeen, six time zones away, is not the most effective or efficient management strategy.

“Although FirstGroup has the largest US school bus and transport business, the third-largest US competitor has just attracted investment in the billions from major US/ Canadian pension funds.”

However, his claims were dismissed by FirstGroup, which argued there is no discrepancy between the views held by its two most senior figureheads.

It said it was continuing to work on a strategy unveiled by Mr Gregory in May, when it said it would seek to sell its Greyhound coach business in North America and explore separating its FirstBus operation in the UK.

But it left the door open to selling First Student and First Transit, stating: “We note Mr Tchenguiz’s comment concerning our North American assets and in particular the sale of a competitor.

“First Student and First Transit are valuable assets and well positioned in markets with profitable growth. The board has been consistent and clear that the objective is to realise value and therefore were a credible and deliverable offer to be received for these or any other business in the portfolio then, of course, the board would give that serious consideration.”

The strategy unveiled by Mr Gregory in May came after a campaign by Coast Capital, which had accused the board of presiding over a “track record of value destruction and under-performance”.

Speaking in May, Mr Gregory held up the company’s First Student and First Transit businesses across the Atlantic as the “most appropriate means for us to deliver enhanced sustainable value for all our shareholders”.

Tchenguiz called yesterday for Mr Martin to carry out a strategic review “ that may result in a break-up of the company’s disparate operations”. He added that he will look to stage an emergency general meeting (EGM) to “remove the volatility created by ambiguity”. FirstGroup rebuffed the EGM call.

Shares in FirstGroup, which plunged 18.5% on Thursday, closed up 2.6% at 116.6p.