Has the City's warrior queen finally met her match?

Profile of Clara Furse, chief executive of the London Stock Exchange. Having fought off previous proposals, can she fend off a hostile bid from Nasdaq?

"Few women can claim to have received marriage proposals from a German, a Swede, an American, a Frenchman, an Englishman and an Australian," says The Business. Clara Furse has spurned them all. "In her battles to fight off all-comers she is regarded as the City's equivalent of the British warrior queen, Boadicea." But has she now met her match with Nasdaq?

Hers has not been a single-handed fight, says The Sunday Telegraph. Furse has co-directors and an army of advisers. "But stock exchanges are personalised businesses" and, as a woman joining what is essentially still a male-dominated world, she was bound to stick out. "The start was rocky", says the FT. Furse, 49, became chief executive in January 2001, just as her father was dying. "On her second day as chief executive she excused herself to attend to his funeral."

Many saw the job as a poisoned chalice. Furse was recruited to the still-unquoted exchange when previous chief, Gavin Casey, resigned after upsetting the owner members. The exchange was in disarray after members had rejected the directors' proposed merger with Deutsche Brse and an opportunistic offer from Sweden. The City had lost confidence. "The boys have made a mess of it," one City grandee famously declared. "Why not let the girls have a go?"

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Furse certainly seemed perfect. Born in Canada, the daughter of an Alcan executive and granddaughter of a member of the German Siemens dynasty, she could speak five languages. Educated in America, Denmark and at the London School of Economics, she was a career banker at ease in the industry. In short, says the Evening Standard, "she was everything the post-Big Bang, brave new City aspired to be". But things soon began to unravel. "Having spent years in the back rooms of banks, she wasn't blessed with front-of-house skills." When a whispering campaign of "unfounded malicious gossip" got underway, she responded by turning on the press gaining a reputation for chippiness that did nothing for her ratings among those who already saw her as "a cold fish".

Against big odds, Furse floated the exchange in July 2001. That didn't silence her detractors, who argued she botched the one major move that was supposedly hers for the taking: to marry the LSE with the London Financial Futures and Options Exchange (Liffe), which was instead lost to Euronext. By the time Werner Seifert of Deutsche Brse kicked off the latest round of approaches in December 2004, her reputation was in shreds. The City, noted the Evening Standard, didn't then have much respect for her. Given the choice of selling out or sticking with her, "there'll be no contest: the shareholders will choose the former".

History has proved the nay-sayers wrong. The shares, then around the £5 mark, are now topping £13, profits have surged, and London is now "the world's largest and most attractive financial centre", says The Business. Furse's reputation has flourished accordingly. Married to a banker, with three children, she keeps her private life private (celebrating her silver wedding anniversary this year between bids) and retains a tough reputation.

But she's no longer branded "dull", notes The Sunday Telegraph. "There is an impish sense of humour... flirting is part of her formula." Colleagues describe her as "Mrs Thatcher without attitude". Whether or not Furse can continue her "heroic defence", her place in the annals of City history is assured.

Fending off Nasdaq's hostile bid

Clara Furse must be bored of all the talk of suitors spurned, but she's nonetheless "in danger of parody as a modern Miss Havisham", says The Economist, "and her will may now be tested as never before". Furse is no Little Englander and defends the LSE's independence by pointing to a

soaring share price and strong results. She also believes that Nasdaq needs London more than London needs Nasdaq all the more so if the NYSE succeeds in pulling off its merger with Euronext. Additionally, it looks as though she has shareholders on side for the time being, at least.

Last week, several big hedge funds joined the US corporate raider Samuel Heyman in building up stakes at prices higher than Nasdaq's offer. "They will resist selling at a loss."

Under London takeover rules, Nasdaq can't automatically raise its £2.7bn bid. It can move "only at the beckoning of the LSE's board, or if a new bidder approaches".

Still, Furse has a determined opponent in Bob Greifeld, even if the US exchange has to "bust a gut to finance its hostile bid", says Nicole Lee on Breakingviews.That doesn't mean Nasdaq won't be able to increase its offer, if given the chance. It has raised some $5.9bn in financing, including a $1.75bn bridge loan and a $775m issue in preference shares, underwritten by Bank of America and Dresdner Kleinwort. Nasdaq "could issue some more preferences shares and hope that its ordinary shares stay strong enough to complete successful re-financing". Furse is by no means out of the woods.