Shell chief swaps the forecourts for top job at Northern Foods

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The Independent Online

Northern Foods, one of the UK's largest food makers, yesterday hired a new chief executive to succeed Jo Stewart, who resigned from the group in September after a profits warning.

The group, which makes frozen pizzas, cookies and ready-made meals for retailers such as Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury, has hired Patricia O'Driscoll, retail vice president at Shell Europe, where she has been refocusing the European forecourt business.

Ms O'Driscoll will be paid a basic salary of £470,000 a year, £45,000 a year more than her predecessor, on the advice of the search consultants who said they needed to pay that package to attract somebody of the right calibre.

In addition she will receive a deferred award of shares worth £130,000 to compensate her for benefits given up when she leaves Shell.

Her pension will be worth two thirds of her final salary if she stays 20 years with the group.

Prior to joining Shell in 1997, Ms O'Driscoll held positions with leading UK retailers including Safeway, Tesco and Marks & Spencer.

Her appointment was welcomed by one City analyst, who said yesterday that he hoped her experience might enable Northern Foods to make the kind of economies of scale enjoyed by some of the group's rivals.

Mr Stewart, who was chief executive of Northern Foods for 15 years, resigned on the same day the group forecast a significant drop in first-half profits, citing the loss of a contract for meat pies for J Sainsbury as one of the reasons for the decline.

The group, which is valued at about £700m, saw profits decline 70 per cent from £64.7m to £19.2m in the first half of the year.

The group's shares have come down from a 12-month high of 173p to 135p yesterday, down 1.75p on the day.

Peter Blackburn, the chairman, said that Ms O'Driscoll's blend of broad retail experience and extensive operational management responsibility gave her an excellent understanding of the key drivers of the business.