Matthew Clark woos institutions with payout pledge

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Matthew Clark responded to growing criticism from disgruntled institutional investors yesterday by promising a maintained interim dividend and offering shareholders the head of its branded drinks division managing director, Andrew Nash.

The cider maker yesterday denied that Mr Nash, who will leave the company in January, was carrying the can for the profits warning in September that caused its share price to plummet to less than half its previous level. But Peter Aikens, chief executive, has been asked to take direct control of that division, rendering Mr Nash's position redundant.

Shares in Matthew Clark, which owns the Dry Blackthorn and Gaymer's brands as well as premium bottled drinks such as Diamond White, closed 15p higher yesterday at 315p as the City drew some comfort from yesterday's evidence that trading had at least stabilised at the company. Following the warning, the shares tumbled from more than 600p and they had been worth over 800p as recently as the end of May.

There was relief too that Clark appeared to have taken the first steps towards recovery by announcing that it would appoint a marketing director to reverse the lack of investment in advertising its brands that some critics said lay behind the company's problems.

Matthew Clark stunned the City last month when it warned that competition from so-called alcopops had dramatically reduced demand for its premium ciders while price competition had damaged its mainstream brands.

Since the announcement rival HP Bulmer, which owns the Strongbow and Woodpecker brands, has made presentations to its shareholders suggesting that the market for cider is actually continuing to grow fast and disputing the argument that the main victim of the sudden rise to prominence of alcoholic "soft" drinks had been cider.

Many analysts agree with Bulmer that Matthew Clark's problems have really stemmed from its decision not to invest heavily in brand-building, considered by most drinks companies to be vital to continuing success.

Matthew Clark also announced separately that its non-executive chairman, Michael Cottrell, died in his sleep on Monday night. It is understood he suffered a heart attack.

His death is also thought to pave the way for a heavyweight replacement at the top of the company and many observers believe the position of Mr Aikens, who caused a furore earlier in the year with a controversial relocation package worth more than pounds 400,000, is still far from secure.

Institutions are thought to have given Mr Aikens a stay of execution until they see the results of a strategic marketing review which will accompany interim results in January. The company has already appointed a marketing consultancy to help formulate that plan.

Analysts now expect Clark to make profits in the current year of about pounds 50m compared with expectations before the warning of about pounds 70m.