Profits warning adds to pension fund woes at Uniq

THE pounds 102M pension black hole at Uniq, the company that makes trifles and chocolate mousses for Marks & Spencer, yesterday threatened to derail a potential pounds 250m takeover bid for the company.

Just one of at least three previous bidders is still in takeover talks with Uniq, the chilled foods group admitted as it surprised investors with a profits warning just four weeks after it last updated the market.

Shares in the company fell 7 per cent to 162p after analysts cut their pre-tax profit forecasts for next year and predicted that the remaining bidder would slash its offer price to as little as 180p per share.

Duke Street Capital, the private equity group that owns a 6.5 per cent stake in Uniq, was one of the parties to have shelved their plans to bid for the company, industry sources said. Uniq's pension fund trustees are thought to have told Duke Street that its proposal was too highly leveraged, putting the continued funding of the pension fund scheme at threat.

Uniq warned that although it was still talking to one potential bidder - thought to be American International Group's private equity arm CapVest Equity - it was struggling to breach an impasse over how the bidder would fund its pension fund deficit. It said it had "not yet been possible to resolve the issues surrounding the leveraged nature of the potential bidder's proposed capital structure in the context of the pension scheme liabilities".

Last year, Permira's bid for WH Smith collapsed after it failed to reach an agreement with the trustees of the retailer's underfunded pension scheme. Philip Green also clashed with trustees of Marks & Spencer's pension fund during his attempts to bid for the retailer.

Uniq said it would step up its cash contributions to its pension fund in an attempt to plug the deficit. It will pay an extra pounds 80m over the next 12 years into the scheme on top of its existing annual contributions of pounds 4.2m. More of the fund is to be invested in bonds than before, it said.

Separately, Uniq revealed that the prospects for trading in the UK, where it makes chilled desserts and sandwiches for most of the big supermarket groups, had sharply deteriorated. It said an "increasingly tough market place" would "impact materially" on group profit expectations.

Analysts cut their pre-tax profit forecasts for the year to March 2006 by about 18 per cent to pounds 23m. One analyst said: "An eye off the ball is probably part of the problem but the retailers are getting more and more cheeky in asking for discounts."

The group has suffered from its limited exposure to Tesco - the only part of the supermarket sector that is growing.

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