ICI faces pressure to drop share buy-back

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The Independent Online
ICI will today face a call to drop its plans to buy in shares just a day after seeing its share price fall on disappointment that no purchases had accompanied first-quarter results.

Pirc, the corporate governance action group, is thought to be trying to rally the institutional shareholders it advises to vote against a resolution allowing ICI to buy up to 10 per cent of its own shares at today's annual general meeting.

But ICI's finance director, Alan Spall, defended the resolution yesterday, saying it was part of the normal action of a finance director trying to enhance shareholder value. He remained unworried by the Pirc move. "We already have sufficient [proxy votes] in hand to clear all the resolutions we want to get through", he said.

ICI's shares slid 28p to 926p yesterday after running up strongly the day before on hopes that it would mount a share buy-in alongside first- quarter figures.

No purchases materialised yesterday and the results, showing pre-tax profits cut from pounds 244m to pounds 223m in the three months to March, were at the lower end of analysts' expectations.

They were accompanied by a warning from ICI's chairman, Sir Ronnie Hampel, that he expected profits to fall in the current quarter of the year, although "we remain optimistic that volume growth will resume in the second half."

ICI saw operating profits slide from pounds 231m to pounds 205m. The main damage was in the core industrial chemicals operation, where both prices and volumes fell.

Most of the impact was in Europe, which contributed to a decrease in the division's turnover from pounds 1.1bn to pounds 1.07bn.

But Mr Spall said the outlook was better. "At the basic end of industrial chemicals, certainly, there is evidence that the first quarter is the end of a pause period and, if the world continues to grow, we should see it continuing upward", he said.

About the only bright spot was the materials business, including acrylics, polyurethanes and films, where profits soared from pounds 29m to pounds 61m.

A 5 per cent fall in volumes was offset by prices 8 per cent higher than in the same period of 1995.

ICI said staff numbers fell a further 1 per cent to 63,100 in the three- month period, after a 6 per cent reduction last year. It said its plan to make pounds 400m efficiency savings by 1997 was on track.

Investment Column, page 18