Matthew Clark chief's position 'under review'

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The Independent Online
Shares in Matthew Clark, the cider maker and soft drinks group, remained in free fall yesterday as investors demanded more information, and even some management changes, following Tuesday's shock profits warning.

Almost pounds 280m, or nearly half of Clark's stock market value, has disappeared in two days of hectic trading since chief executive Peter Aikens blamed a new breed of "alco-pops" and other alcoholic lemon drinks aimed at younger drinkers for a slump in demand for its Diamond White and K Cider brands and Babycham.

"The further fall in the share price speaks volumes for the lack of confidence that now exists," said one leading institutional investor. "Quite how sales disappeared in two months stretches credibility. It is almost unprecedented for a company this size."

Last night the shares closed 75.5p lower at 355.5p, valuing the company at just under pounds 315m. More than 9 million shares have changed hands since the profits warning compared with average daily dealings of around 400,000.

Fund managers are demanding more details before addressing the question of possible boardroom changes.

"Clearly Mr Aikens' position has to be under review," said one institution, "but we need to establish the facts before any heads roll".

Mr Aiken has used a series of rights issues to pursue an acquisitions- led strategy over the past six years, turning Clark into Britain's second- largest cider maker and a leading soft drinks producer whose brands include Strathmore mineral water and Taunton and Gaymer's ciders.

What is puzzling analysts and investors is why this deliberate diversification policy still left the Clark group so exposed to a sudden switch during the summer from strong white cider to alco-pops. The three brands affected by the shift in consumption pattern account for about one-fifth of Clark's estimated profits this year of pounds 50m.

"There might be more to this than just alco-pops," said a fund manager. One suggestion is that internal management targets for Taunton, the cider company bought by Mr Clark for pounds 271m last September, had been raised to unrealistic levels on the back of booming cider sales during the long, hot summer of 1995.

Mr Clark has already incurred the wrath of fund managers last month when it emerged that Mr Aikens received a pounds 430,000 relocation package after the company moved its headquarters to Bristol from Guildford.