Plagued by the activists Profile: Christopher Cliffe

The chief of one of the UK's largest animal-testing companies is walking a tightrope between saboteurs and institutional investors, writes Michael Ricks
Click to follow
DEATH threats, suspected letter bombs and dawn raids on the homes of staff by balaclava-clad groups of men are not normally problems encountered by the average chief executive.

But Christopher Cliffe, chief executive of one of Britain's largest animal- testing companies, has learned to take what he describes as a "campaign of intimidation" by animal rights activists in his stride. He believes some are hell-bent on trying to bring his company down with a prolonged programme of economic sabotage - something he insists the institutional investors and the City in general will not allow to succeed.

A year after Huntingdon Life Sciences was castigated for its treatment of animals in the UK and the US, he says the company has made changes and is attracting back its core business. Despite a share price languishing at around 34p - down from 124p in early 1997, he is "quietly optimistic" for the future.

The share price is low, but he points out that it was down to 16p in 1994 and then bounced back to around 130p. He puts the current price down to excessive caution in some sectors of the City. "We are out of intensive care and now we are in rehabilitation, as it were. We have suffered a hiccup and, given the changes we have made, I am cautiously confident that recovery will come."

That is a very different picture from a year ago when allegations of ill treatment of animals surfaced. First a Channel 4 documentary showed staff mis- treating a dog. Then came further embarrassing allegations about the company's Princeton laboratory in the US. The share price plummeted from 124p to 54p. The Government considered withdrawing Huntingdon's all important licences, which could have resulted in its closure. For three months, the company suspended dealing in its shares.

The allegations outraged animal rights campaigners, and directors and staff were threatened and their homes attacked. Cars were stoned and staff received "home visits" from protesters waving banners and in some cases baseball bats. "The level of intimidation against our staff has been horrific. Some of the protesters deliberately targeted female staff. They would be woken up at 5am by five or 10 people wearing balaclavas and waving baseball bats. Their neighbours received leaflets. I think the staff have been wonderful and have rallied round, even though they have had more than their fair share of unpleasant threats."

By October, the Government gave the company the all-clear and, said Mr Cliffe, it began the task of regaining lost ground and winning back customers. A key strategy was to win back the confidence of their big clients, in particular the pharmaceutical companies and brand name firms that had used Huntingdon to carry out research to meet UK and US government product safety regulations.

"There are two things which really damage a company like ours. One is an allegation that data was falsified and the other is of cruelty to animals and breaches of animal welfare regulations. The activists made the two allegations which caused the most damage. The allegation that data was falsified was not proven. The impression which has been given is that cruelty was widespread. It certainly was not."

Last year, the company spent more than pounds 3.4m on legal and advisers' fees in court actions against critics in the US and against protesters who tried to set up a permanent camp outside their Huntingdon headquarters.

The allegations and threat of government action, which could have led to the company's closure, resulted in a loss of pounds 5.6m in 1997, and a pre- tax loss of pounds 4m in the first quarter of this year, although Mr Cliffe said the figures were in line with forecasts and that inquiries and indications of future business were "encouraging". "We have carried out improvements to our procedures. We have had independent checks made and have given access to our study sponsors. We made no secret of the fact that our concern lay most with the clients who'd been slowest to return - they needed the most reassurance and it took longer to assuage their concerns."

Mr Cliffe said the company has more than 7,000 current projects and 2,500 "live" projects, many involving pre-clinical trials on potentially successful drugs; it had also taken part in transplant projects for Papworth and Addenbrooke's hospitals. "As each month goes by, the level of our activity is rising," said Mr Cliffe.

The protests, however, continue with campaigners threatening to extend their "economic sabotage" to institutional investors, unless the company stops all animal experiments. They are threatening to bring pressure to bear on Huntingdon's institutional shareholders. Activists have already tried, and failed, to get the Co-op Insurance Service to withdraw support, and are planning a march on the Co-op Wholesale Society's Manchester headquarters, claiming its investment breaches the Co-op's ethical investment criteria.

In the past two months, Mr Cliffe, a director of at least one City fund manager and other shareholders have received death threats. The anonymous letters point out that they know where the men live and refer to their children by name.

"I can understand the concerns of the animal welfare groups but not some of the activists. I believe some of them are seeking to destroy Huntingdon. I don't think they have any thought as to the impact it would have on medicine or on the loss of 1,600 jobs.

"I think they have chosen us because they think we are small and vulnerable. But I am confident we have the support of our shareholders. I and the Co-op believe we meet the criteria for ethical investment, and I believe they will remain loyal shareholders. We have the support of the institutional shareholders who know of our work with the pharmaceutical companies.

"The activists should be talking to the Home Office and the Government; it is the authorities who say that all medicines have to be tested on animals. We cannot go to the Food and Drug Administration in America or the Medicines Control Agency and tell them to change the law."

Comments