Bad day for finance directors as lastminute FD resigns

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The Independent Online

Lastminute.com parted company with its finance director yesterday after a poor year culminated in the online travel retailer failing to hit the underlying profit forecast it set last month.

The group is struggling to bed down a string of acquisitions which have caused its cost base to spiral to £150m. Its shares dived 13 per cent to 104.25p.

Brent Hoberman, the chief executive, defended the trading performance, blaming disappointing fourth-quarter figures on higher interest charges and a delayed VAT rebate. He said: "We're disappointed that these two issues occurred but we want to ensure people understand that actions have been taken and that fundamental growth mechanisms are absolutely in place."

David Howell, the finance director, will leave early next year after almost four years at lastminute. He is expected to receive a pay-off despite the company's claim that he is leaving in search of "fresh challenges". Last month, the group predicted it would hit the bottom of its £25m to £30m earnings range during its crucial fourth quarter. Yesterday it revealed underlying earnings for the three-month period were £22.3m.

Annual pre-tax losses widened to £77.2m compared with £47.7m the previous year, after it amortised £66.3m of goodwill. Since listing in 2000, it has bought 14 businesses, including five in the past 12 months.

Mr Hoberman defended the group's acquisitions but pledged not to buy any companies until it had integrated the likes of Med Hotels, First Option, Gemstone Travel and its biggest acquisition, Online Travel Corporation.

The group has outlined an aggressive cost-cutting plan which will see it axe 350 jobs next year and close 10 of its 22 UK offices. Yesterday it revealed that exceptional operating costs overshot its target last year at £15.2m against expectations of about £9m. It spent £5.4m on redundancy costs and £2.2m on relocating most of its head office outside London. It hopes its actions will save its £15m next year and £16m the following year.

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