Bowkett to leave Berisford after seven years as chief

BERISFORD, THE Magnet kitchens and Welbilt ovens group, yesterday announced that its chief executive, Alan Bowkett, is to step down after more than seven years in charge. Mr Bowkett, who will be replaced by the head of the Magnet business, David Williams, is stepping down with immediate effect "to pursue opportunities in private equity".

Mr Bowkett, 48, built a reputation as a deal-maker in the late Eighties when he bought RHP Barings in Newark, Nottinghamshire for pounds 72m in 1987 and sold it three years later to Nippon Seiko for pounds 210m.

He was appointed chief executive of Berisford in 1992 when it was a near bankrupt conglomerate with interests ranging from commodities to property. He sold off most of the assets, reducing the company to a near shell before buying Magnet in 1994 and Welbilt a year later.

"I tend to work in five-year cycles so on that measure I've already stayed on two years too long," Mr Bowkett said, though he admitted that his departure had been delayed by a calamitous profits warning in 1996 caused by computer- system problems at Welbilt and a strike at a Magnet factory in Doncaster. "Things are stronger now the results are good. So the time is right to go."

Mr Bowkett is looking to raise around $1bn to fund a buy-out in the fragmented industrial products sector in Europe, Asia or America. He later plans to float the business in New York. He holds 2 million shares in Berisford worth pounds 5.1m and options worth another pounds 3m.

Analysts said the management changes could prompt a bid for the company which turned down an approach from an unnamed bidder in February. They also questioned whether chief operating officer Dennis Mulhall would stay on after being passed over for the top job.

The City was positive on the group's results, also announced yesterday, which showed pre-tax profits up 24 per cent to pounds 26.8m at the half year stage.

Berisford has been concentrating on developing Welbilt into a global player and it now ranks fourth in the food catering equipment sector where it specialises in ovens and grills for fast food chains like Burger King and McDonald's.

Welbilt's sales grew by 22 per cent, helped by acquisitions. Underlying profits rose by 6 per cent if acquisitions are excluded.

Magnet outperformed a declining kitchen market in the UK with first half sales up by 3 per cent and the average order size up by 7 per cent. Profits shot up by an astonishing 44 per cent to pounds 8.5m helped by better margins.

Looking forward, Magnet should benefit from a recovering housing market. Welbilt is hunting for deals in Europe, North America and Asia while the main US food service market is growing by 2 per cent a year.

At the group level the company is looking at a secondary listing in the United States where food service companies attract higher ratings. On full year profits forecast of pounds 63.5m the shares - up 7.5p at 256p yesterday - trade on a forward multiple of just 10. Still cheap, even after a strong recent rally.

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