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Name change as Park grows

PARK FOODS, best known for its door-to-door sales of Christmas hampers and food vouchers, plans to change its name to Park Group as it searches for a new identity and new markets.

It will create 1,000 full or part-time jobs in its home territory of Birkenhead by opening a pounds 2.5m telephone-based data management centre in September, the chief executive Alastair Kerr said yesterday.

The centre will house the group's marketing and loyalty scheme management business, Handling Solutions (HSL), whose management has been drastically shaken up.

The group's latest attempt at diversification, a home credit service making small loans and collecting payments door to door, will also start to go national in September.

The dispute with Stuart Marks, the founder of HSL, who became a director of Park Foods when the business was acquired in 1993 and was sacked after mounting an unsuccessful buyout plan in 1996, has been settled out of court.

The group's founder, chairman and chief shareholder, Peter Johnson, will become non-executive in October, handing day-to-day control to Mr Kerr, who joined the group from Virgin Retail last year, in order to spend more time with his other love, struggling Everton Football Club.

But the group's previous attempt to diversify away from its highly seasonal hamper business by marketing a fried potato snack under the brand name Spuddles was largely responsible for a 30 per cent drop in group profits to pounds 6.67m in the year to 31 March.

The figures were below market forecasts, the unchanged dividend of 2.98p was disappointing and the shares fell a further 2p to 59p yesterday.

Spuddles failed to break into the catering market and lost pounds 2.3m in the full year on sales of just pounds 250,000.

A low-fat version that can bee cooked in an oven has been developed for the retail market and Park is talking to Tesco, Sainsbury, Asda and Safeway in the hope of negotiating a supply contract as an alternative to selling the division outright.

The pounds 1m cost of restructuring Handling Solutions has also been charged to profit.