Perkins to return pounds 45m to investors after sale

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PERKINS FOODS boosted its shares yesterday with the sale of its fresh produce business and plans to return pounds 45.4m to investors. The company said it had got an attractive price for the business, which it has agreed to sell to Dutch produce marketing group Greenery International for pounds 123.6m. Perkins' shares rose by more than 10 per cent, ending at 138.5p, up 13p.

The company said the deal would enable it to develop its faster-growing chilled and frozen food divisions around Europe, where it already supplies 15 of the top supermarket groups, including Tesco and J Sainsbury.

Ian Blackburn, the deputy chief executive, said Perkins was not only getting a very good price for the division, regarded historically as the lower quality one, but would have ample resources to invest in the remaining two, even after giving money back to investors.

"We are a smaller business but should be much faster growing," said Mr Blackburn, who will take over from the current chief executive Howard Phillips when he retires at the annual meeting. Mr Blackburn was hopeful Perkins could obtain shareholder and regulatory approvals for the deal by the end of the month.

Plans for the chilled foods business include a new pre-packed, sliced cooked meats factory in the UK and the acquisition of a chilled ready- meal business in France, which Perkins hopes to finalise by the end of March.

Chilled ready meals, pioneered in Britain, were growing in popularity in the Netherlands and France, Mr Blackburn said.

The chilled food division comprises Dutch convenience foods and UK cooked meats.

The firm also reported a 19 per cent rise in its 1997 profits and increased its total dividend payment to 4.6p a share from 4.5p last time. Group sales rose to pounds 626.8m from pounds 466.2m.