Hi-Tec chairman denies rumours as directors quit: Sports shoemaker expects an upturn after pounds 3m losses, writes Nick Gilbert

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The Independent Online
HI-TEC, Britain's leading sports shoe company, has denied rumours it is in trouble.

Frank van Wezel, chairman and chief executive, dismissed suggestions that Sir Michael Edwardes' sudden departure from the board was connected with the parlous state of the group's finances.

'We are in no danger of going under - 1993 is looking a lot better than 1992,' said Mr van Wezel, who owns 56 per cent of Hi-Tec.

The Dutch fertiliser company executive turned entrepreneur founded Hi-Tec nearly 20 years ago and built it into a top-selling brand. But last year was disastrous for the company. Mr Van Wezel will shortly unveil a loss for 1992 of about pounds 3m. His company is reliant on an overdraft from National Westminster Bank.

Sir Michael and a close friend, City banker Richard Fenhalls, resigned recently, eight weeks after joining the Hi-Tec board. Their appointment followed pressure from Postel, the company's largest shareholder, which was anxious to strengthen the board. They succeeded Gordon Dunlop, the former British Airways finance director, who resigned suddenly in November, leaving no non- executives on the board.

But within weeks, the two directors told Mr van Wezel in a letter that they could make no 'meaningful contribution' to his company.

The City speculated that Hi-Tec was on NatWest's list of endangered companies or that Sir Michael had suggested he take over as chairman, leaving Mr van Wezel as chief executive. Postel has been pressing for the roles to be split.

Mr Dunlop is critical of the Hi-Tec boss for what he sees as overly ambitious plans to expand Hi-Tec worldwide.

Mr van Wezel agreed he has 'global aspirations'. Despite criticism that Hi-Tec is run more like a private company than a public one, he has no plans to buy out outside shareholders. 'We need City funds to help us expand internationally,' he said.

The City is disillusioned with Mr van Wezel. Some 14 months ago, Hi-Tec raised pounds 10m via a rights issue at 150p a share. Last May came record profits of pounds 9.1m. They were followed in July by a profits warning, and in October by a first-half loss of nearly pounds 3m.

The company has suffered at the hands of Nike and Reebok which flooded the UK market with trainers when the dollar was low last year. But the Hi- Tech boss now sees signs of recovery.

'As the mass-market brand, we expect to see the first of the upturn,' said Mr van Wezel who reckons his UK order book is at its highest for six years.

With the shares around their all-time low at 42p, investors must hope his enthusiasm is well-placed.

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