Market Report: Laura Ashley chairman steps down and sells shares

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SIR BERNARD ASHLEY yesterday stepped down as chairman of Laura Ashley, the chintzy frock and drapery retailer, and sold another block of shares, raising pounds 32m.

The shares were placed by Robert Fleming and Kleinwort Benson with UK and US institutions. Sir Bernard, who is 67, sold at 108p, reducing his family shareholding to 36 per cent.

He trimmed his shareholding by 10 million shares in March, moving to just below 50 per cent. A similar amount was sold early last year when Sir Bernard gave up executive responsibilities.

The reduced Ashley family involvement coincides with the infusion of professional non-family management. The group, with more than 500 shops in 26 countries, is now run by the American Jim Maxmin, an ex-Thorn EMI executive.

Sir Bernard, who remains a director, plans to use the pounds 32m to continue the development of his hotel and leisure business, which embraces an 18-hole golf course at Charlottesville, Virginia, designed by Arnold Palmer. He is succeeded as Laura Ashley chairman by Hugh Webb, vice chairman since 1991.

The shares shaded 1p to 112p.

The rest of the stock market lost early enthusiasm as New York struggled to cling to its new peak. At one time up 13.1 points, the FT-SE index of the top 100 shares ended 2.9 down at 2,816.8. But the second-liners, as represented by the FT-SE 250 index, romped to a new peak, up 11.1 to 3,160.1.

Food and drink shares had a torrid time, stripping seven points from the FT-SE 100. Breweries remained under the weather following the sobering Bass interim profits. Bass fell 21p to 462p, a two-day fall of 71p. Wolverhampton & Dudley Breweries, rolling out interim results today, tumbled 36p to 523p.

The threatened BSN price 'war' and worries about brand values continued to eat into food shares. Unilever fell another 18p to 996p. The shares have given up 108p since last week's first-quarter figures.

Cadbury Schweppes came under pressure towards the close, ending 14p down at 422p. Stories swirled that a rights issue or the long-expected bid for United Biscuits would materialise today. UB eased 2p to 403p.

Properties enjoyed a rip-roaring session. A growing impression that the worst of the property recession is over has strengthened this week with asset values lifted and analysts making more and more confident noises. Takeover talk, with Hammerson still in the frame, also contributed.

Chesterfield Properties' trading performance set the pattern. The shares jumped 58p to 330p on the profits and statement. Others higher included British Land 11p to 302p; Land Securities 12p to 565p; Peel Holdings 13p to 187p and Slough Estates, which held a confident meeting on Wednesday, 14p to 209p.

Embassy Properties, controlled by Tai Lu Wong and Tai Yu Wong of Hong Kong, held at 5.5p. It has issued 2.3 million shares (about 2 per cent) to BICC to repay a debt.

Lloyds Bank rose 8p to 548p as Barclays de Zoete Wedd suggested a switch out of National Westminster, up 8p at 475p, TSB Group attracted more takeover rumours, gaining 4p to 187p after 189p.

Medeva, the drugs group, was firm at 220.5p. James Capel rates the shares a buy. It is looking for pounds 58m this year and pounds 73.5m next.

The engineer James Wilkes edged ahead to 82p as Suter's stake progressed to 15.03 per cent. The metals group Downiebrae jumped 6p to 82p. It confirmed talks that could lead to a 'substantial acquisition'. Many expect a deal in the next account.

Southern Business Group fell 16p to 67p on the accounting changes, which could cost pounds 3m. Among firm technology shares, Tadpole rose 7p to 292p on the Henry Cooke Lumsden upgrades.

Bryant Group, the housebuilder, ignored sell advice from Yamaichi, the Japanese securities group. The shares rose 1p to 151p. Yamaichi points out that the shares have outperformed by 34 per cent this year as the market has concentrated on the group's housing activities. But it believes Bryant's construction and property sides bring the group more into line with John Laing or Tarmac and the shares should, therefore, be just below 100p.

A cautious shareholders' meeting sent Brent Chemical tumbling 30p to a year's low of 99p. Hartstone, the harassed hosiery and leather group that has been the subject of a succession of bear raids, had an uncomfortable session, falling 8p to 81p.

Intercare, an acquisitive healthcare distributor, edged ahead 1p to 185p. UBS say the shares are a buy, forecasting profits of pounds 4.6m this year and pounds 5.7m next.

The FT-SE 100 index ended 2.9 points down at 2,816.8 but the FT-SE 250 index reached a peak of 3,160.1, up 11.1. Turnover reached 700.8 million shares with 28,240 bargains. The account ends today and settlement is on 1 June. Government stocks were little changed.

Shares of ISA International, the computer peripherals group, edged ahead 2p to 101p. About 10 fund managers returned from visiting the group's German operations, responsible for 45 per cent of turnover, and, it seems, gained the impression that ISA had avoided the German economic downturn. Profits last year emerged at just over pounds 3m and there are hopes pounds 4.5m will be struck this year.

Celestion Industries, an exhibitor at yesterday's Hoare Govett small companies show, rose 13p to 166p. The lingerie and swimwear maker, which sends much of its output to Marks & Spencer, has been reshaped by the former corporate finance man, Charles Ryder. He intends to change the name, still associated with the sold hi-fi business, to Magellan Industries. The shares were 30p last year.

Domino Printing Sciences, a maker of ink jet printers, has attracted profit downgradings from NatWest Securities. The securities house has cut this year's estimate from pounds 13.5m to pounds 12.1m and next from pounds 15.5m to pounds 13.6m. Last year Domino achieved a peak pounds 11.9m. The shares topped 600p earlier this year but then suffered from a company profit warning. They fell 4p to 504p yesterday.