Albert Fisher chief goes as sell-off begins

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ALBERT FISHER, the troubled food producing group, encountered fresh trouble yesterday as it ousted its chief executive, unveiled a collapse in profits and put around one-third of its business up for sale.

The company, which has annual sales of more than pounds 1bn and is one of the UK's largest suppliers of food to retailers, said that Neil England would become the second chief executive to go in four years.

Mr England, expected to receive a payoff of about pounds 700,000, will be replaced by Terry Robinson, a former director of Lonrho. The chairman, Hugh Ashton, said: "Neil England has been with us for two years and during that period the profit and share price performance have been disappointing. The board has decided he was not the man to lead us into the future."

Mr Robinson's first tasks will be to mastermind the sale of three of Albert Fisher's divisions and use the proceeds to bring down the company's pounds 170m debt mountain to around pounds 100m. The company, been dogged by poor sales over the past year, said there was widespread interest for the chilled food, European seafood and "quality food" units - the latter specialises in sauces and dressings for supermarkets' own labels.

The units contributed pounds 300m to group turnover, but analysts predicted the company would struggle to fetch more than pounds 90m for them. Mr Ashton was confident that the units would be sold "reasonably soon", probably to separate buyers. The US fresh food division could also be sold within a year.

The restructuring, decided after a review by PricewaterhouseCoopers, leaves Albert Fisher with fresh and frozen food businesses in Britain and Europe, and a position as the UK's third-largest fish processor. The shake-up is expected to lead to a handful of job losses at the company's head office in Buckinghamshire.

Yesterday Albert Fisher reported a near-50 per cent fall in interim profits to pounds 21.5m. Mr Ashton said the results, which had been flagged in a profits warning in July, were "bloody disappointing". He blamed the poor summer weather for a slump in chilled food sales and sourcing problems for a fall in fresh fruit volume.