City seeks blood at cider firm

'Heads to roll' at Matthew Clark after share price collapses in wake of profits warning
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The Independent Online
Institutions are to push for top management changes at Matthew Clark, the Taunton Cider to Babycham drinks maker, after a shock profits warning wiped pounds 270m off its shares last week.

Peter Aikens, the Bristol-based firm's chief executive, was still involved in meetings with City shareholders on Friday, attempting to calm the storm after the surprise announcement at its annual general meeting last Tuesday.

The group blamed the sudden gloom on a dramatic collapse in July and August in its three top brands - Diamond White and K ciders, and Babycham - owing to the success of new alcoholic soft drinks, "alcopops", introduced by rivals.

City anger, however, will only be heightened by the revelation that the group reassured its three largest investors only at the end of August that fears about its key cider markets were unfounded.

The timing of the announcement has also led to fears over management controls, accounting practices and market strategy following rapid growth by acquisition over the last four years.

"Like everyone else, we had no impression that this was likely. We don't really know what's going on," one of the group's largest institutional shareholders said this weekend.

"We have no doubt heads will roll. It's just a question of who. But I have no doubt there will be a change at the top of the company."

City sources say PDFM, the group's biggest investor with a 20 per cent stake, Robert Fleming and M&G - with around 4 per cent each - were all given comfort on prospects less than three weeks ago.

All had approached the group, following a sell note issued by Swiss-owned broker UBS, which highlighted loss of cider market share, through alcopops, price pressure and cuts in the group's advertising budget.

UBS, which also owns PDFM, was the only warning voice in the City at the time. Brokers then were generally were forecasting profits of around pounds 70m, up from pounds 42m, for the current year to end April, 1997.

Analysts immediately slashed forecasts to pounds 50m after the warning, leaving the shares down 302p at 368p by the end of the week.

Matthew Clark has grown explosively since 1992, splashing out over pounds 470m on a series of deals, including Strathmore mineral water, Grants of St James wines and Gaymer cider.

The biggest deal, Taunton Cider for pounds 275m in November last year, brought in the Diamond White, Dry Blackthorn and Red Rock brands and made the group into Britain's number two cider maker after Bulmers.

Now valued at pounds 325m, the group itself is seen as a difficult takeover target. Bulmers would face monopoly problems, while big pub groups would face the prospect of rivals ceasing to buy its products. Matthew Clark's growth has also been fuelled by the large drinks firms shedding peripheral brands.

Upbeat remarks by Bulmers last week, meanwhile, plus contradictory signals to analysts from supermarket and pubs groups over the effect of alcopops and de-stocking of Matthew Clark brands, leave the market troubled by the warning.

City institutions are also pressing for more information on use of provisions of pounds 32m, or 43 per cent of reported trading profit, over the last three years.

Mr Aikens and finance director Hugh Etheridge declin-ed to return calls on Friday. Both are seen as vulnerable to institutional wrath, as well as non-executive chairman Michael Cottrell.

Only last month, Mr Aikens provoked controversy over a pounds 430,000 relocation package following the firm's move to Bristol from Guildford.

A company spokesman, however, rebutted City concerns over the timing of Tuesday's announcement.

"These issues emerged very rapidly and the AGM was the first appropriate opportunity," he said.