Matthew Clark dividend slashed as crisis deepens

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Matthew Clark, the beleaguered cider maker, stunned investors yesterday when it announced its second profit warning in 18 months and slashed its dividend. Andrew Yates reports on another sorry episode for the group and Peter Aikens, its embattled chief executive.

Some institutional investors were calling for the head of Peter Aikens yesterday after the group's latest profit warning, which caused shares in the cider maker to crash 46.5p to 183.5p yesterday.

One institutional shareholder who believed Mr Aikens should go said: "There must be a lot of very unhappy shareholders out there. Just a few months ago Matthew Clark told us it would not cut the dividend and then it goes and does it."

A drinks analyst said: "This is a disaster. A lot of people are very surprised he [Peter Aikens] is still there and this must be another nail in his coffin."

Pre-tax profits for the six months to October fell 18 per cent to pounds 17.7m. The dividend payout has been slashed from 9p to 5p share and the group warned that there would be a similar cut in the final dividend. The profits warning prompted analysts to chop current year profit forecasts by pounds 5m to pounds 32m.

Mr Aikens has been dogged by controversy since he received a pounds 441,000 allowance to move just 105 miles from Surrey to Bristol in 1996, on top of a pounds 383,000 pay packet, only to announce a profits warning a month later which sent Matthew Clark's market value spiralling downwards.

Its share price rose as high as 801p in 1996, valuing the group at pounds 709m, but today it is worth a mere pounds 162m.

Mr Aikens is paid pounds 230,000 a year and could expect a pay off of pounds 460,000 if he is ousted from his position.

Matthew Clark has been hit by the slump in the cider market and the growing popularity of alternative drinks such as alcopops. In an attempt to spend its way out of trouble it launched a pounds 10m advertising campaign earlier this year designed to reverse falling sales of its major brands such as Diamond White and Blackthorn. However, so far the results have been very disappointing and sales in the run-up to Christmas have been poor.

Peter Huntley, Matthew Clark's business development director, said: "The cider market has taken longer to turn around than expected. Disappointing sales in the last few months and the increased level of marketing investment have tipped the balance and we decided to cut the dividend."

Speculation is mounting that predators may be circling the group, given its current woes. One analyst said: "This makes a take-over approach more likely. Rivals must be putting a slide rule over the business."

Mr Huntley said that the board had no intention of sacking Mr Aikens and it would continue investing in its brands.

"There are some signs that the cider market is recovering," he said. "This investment programme is the only option to generate long-term growth and shareholders are fully behind this strategy."