SFI takes action to calm City jitters as Hill retires

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The Independent Online

The high street pubs group SFI has moved to address City concerns over a successor for its founder and chairman, Tony Hill, with the appointment of a new chief executive.

Mr Hill, who established the company 16 years ago, said he was cutting back his executive duties before standing down as chairman in late 2003. Andrew Latham, the current retail managing director, will become chief executive in April.

Mr Hill, who was 65 last week, said the business, which operates the Slug and Lettuce, Bar Med and Litten Tree brands, needed someone who could understand the trends of the late-night bar crowd. "It doesn't need to be burdened down with old fogies like me," he said.

SFI is expected to complete its board changes with the appointment of a new finance director after the incumbent, James Kowszun, resigned to move to Hartford, the restaurants group. The management reshuffle came as SFI, formerly known as Surrey Free Inns, unveiled strong interim results and underlined its desire to grow into a FTSE 250 stock within the next three years. The group said it would attack its high levels of gearing in an attempt to seek a market re-rating. The shares, down 3p to 201.5p, have languished well below 300p.

Mr Latham said the group was aiming to take a 20 per cent share of the estimated £2.5bn market for high street bars by rolling out its three core concepts to around 500 outlets. However, it has reined back new openings in the first half while it focuses on rebranding the Parisa units it acquired last year as Slug bars.

Mr Hill said SFI was close to completing the disposal of its For Your Eyes Only table dancing division. Analysts said that until the sale, which fell through last year, was completed, institutions would shun SFI.

SFI reported a 22 per cent rise in pre-tax profits before goodwill and exceptionals for the half-year to December 15 to £9.3m. Sales increased by 30 per cent to £73m.