AB Ports chairman makes early departure

Associated British Ports was on the look-out for a new chairman yesterday to help steer it through its next phase of growth while announcing a 3 per cent rise in annual profits.

Ross Sayers, the current chairman who has been in the role for two years, is leaving after the company's annual meeting in April, having taken on a number of other positions.

The change at the top comes as the group, which handles about a quarter of the country's seaborne trade at 21 ports, awaits a key government decision on a £600m deep-water container development at Dibden, Southampton.

It also came after ABP announced that profits in 2003 grew by 2.5 per cent to £141.6m, helped by a near £3m reduction in its interest charge to £35m and driven by growth in its core UK ports and transport business.

"The main driver was our ports business and all our new contracts," the chief executive, Bo Lerenius, said. "We've actually outgrown the ports sector three years in a row."

Mr Lerenius said that if the group did not get permission for Dibden, it would look at returning a "relatively substantial" portion of cash to shareholders.

He was also upbeat on the company's prospects this year, saying a recent cost-cutting exercise combined with new business wins gave grounds for "cautious optimism".