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Block watch

Call Dominique Biedermann an optimist.

Call Dominique Biedermann an optimist. The 46-year-old founding chairman of Geneva-based Ethos Foundation has been campaigning for shareholder votes to block Nestlé chief executive Peter Brabeck-Letmathe from taking on the additional title of chairman at the Swiss food giant's annual general meeting this month. Ethos recently introduced a resolution blocking the move into the AGM agenda. But Brabeck-Letmathe, and the entire Nestlé board, who have steadfastly maintained that there are no other strong candidates for the job, are threatening to resign if the resolution passes -- a doomsday scenario that disturbs even Biedermann, who nonetheless presses on. "Combining the two positions represents a clear step backward when it comes to corporate accountability and making sure power is not concentrated in the hands of one all-powerful executive," he says. "If we can get 20 percent of shareholders to support us, I think Nestlé may decide to separate the positions within one year."

Brabeck-Letmathe, 60, who became CEO in 1997, announced in January that he would succeed chairman Rainer Gut, who is retiring next month. Biedermann's Ethos reacted promptly with its headline-grabbing resolution. Biedermann and his allies -- five major Swiss pension funds -- own some Sf400 million ($335 million) worth of Nestlé shares, or about 0.4 percent of the company. But Ethos also manages Sf880 million on behalf of 83 Swiss pension funds. "That means we can usually get a lot of support for our resolutions," says Biedermann.

Late last month he got a shot in the arm from Institutional Shareholder Services, the influential proxy advisory service, which is counseling its clients to support the Ethos resolution.