Grand Met sets pounds 86m aside: Dispute over payment from Brent Walker contributes to profit slide

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GRAND Metropolitan has made an pounds 86m provision for outstanding payments on the pounds 750m sale of the William Hill and Mecca betting businesses to Brent Walker in 1989.

Some pounds 20m is for accountants' and lawyers' fees, with pounds 50m for the deferred acquisition payment and pounds 16m in interest.

Sir Allen Sheppard, chairman of the international food and drinks company, said the provision had been made 'because the chances of them paying us are doubtful'.

Brent Walker, the leisure empire created and formerly run by George Walker, is trying to recoup pounds 50m from Grand Met, which it claims overstated William Hill's profits. This dispute has gone to arbitration, and a decision is not expected until late next year.

The provision disclosed yesterday was the main surprise in Grand Met's annual results. Profits before tax, struck after pounds 286m of exceptional costs, fell from pounds 913m to pounds 630m. The exceptionals included pounds 175m of restructuring costs that had already been announced, but an unexpected pounds 50m write-down on UK properties.

Sir Allen said the highlight was the record free cash flow, which increased more than five times to pounds 499m. Even after deducting the cost of the dividend, up from 12.3p to 13p, there was a positive cash inflow of pounds 255m.

On trading, he said: 'Economic conditions were challenging. But against this background, underlying operating profit was up 18.6 per cent.'

George Bull, soon to become chief executive, said sales volumes and market shares in North American food were generally maintained. Favourable exchange rates helped the division report a 29 per cent profit rise to pounds 212m.

The burgeoning IDV drinks business contributed more than half of group trading profits, with a 12 per cent rise to pounds 509m. IDV, whose brands include Smirnoff vodka and J&B Rare whisky, sold more than 100 million cases. Trading profits at Burger King, the fast food operation, rose 9 per cent to pounds 137m.

Pre-tax losses at Inntrepreneur, the pub operator owned jointly with Foster's, fell pounds 10m to pounds 18m and it should break even this year. Grand Met injected pounds 41.5m to prevent banking covenants being breached.

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