Hong Kong's only listed real estate broker, Midland Holdings - headed by Freddie Wong Kin-yip - faces a challenge from minority investor Apex Benchmark, which is demanding a change in the family-run management style because the company may record its biggest loss since it was listed in 1995.
The move heralds another battle for control of a company founded by the Wong family, just when hard times lie ahead for the real estate market.
Apex is Midland's third-largest institutional shareholder and it threatened yesterday to sell down its 7.5 per cent stake if there is not a big improvement in Midland's performance.
"As an investor, whoever is in charge of the company is fine with us as long as they achieve satisfactory results. But the existing management is not capable of doing it," said Mau Wang-bong, a former Midland employee and one of the investors in the HK$1.5 billion Hong Kong-based real estate fund Apex.
Midland announced a profit warning last month, saying it expects a net loss for the second half of last year. Midland reported an interim loss of HK$88.73 million for the six months to June, compared to a profit of HK$147.3 million in the first half of 2012.
Mau said the announcement meant Midland could book a full-year loss of nearly HK$180 million.
"It will be the biggest loss since its listing. But rival Centaline Property Agency reported profits despite the market doldrums," he said. "It raises questions over the ability of Midland management."
Mau noted that Midland did not suffer such a loss even during the Sars respiratory disease outbreak, which hit Hong Kong hard in 2003.
Wong did not directly address Mau's comments, but said in an internal memorandum the management was appointing a new residential team to lead the firm out of its losses. The notice pointed out that Wong's confidence in Midland's future was demonstrated when he spent HK$200 million last year to raise his stake in the company.
Apex spent about HK$160 million to buy 52.45 million Midland shares.
Shares in Midland rose 3.89 per cent to end yesterday at HK$3.47.
Midland is chaired by Wong. His daughter Angela Wong Ching-yi is the deputy chairman, having replaced her mother Metty Tang Mei-lai in 2011. Tang remains as an executive director on an annual package of HK$3.3 million. Freddie Wong receives a salary package of HK$3.4 million while his daughter is on a package of HK$9 million.
Wong increased his stake in the company to 16.73 per cent from 8 per cent in 2012.
The call by Apex came one day after 30 property agents marched to Midland's headquarters after the company forced the director of the Hong Kong district, Gary Yeung, to resign on January 30.
"People are major assets for real estate companies. If they keep on sacking top sales [people] one by one, the company's morale will be seriously affected," Mau said.