Quiet town is shaken by a family feud: John Murray reports on fears for the future of C&J Clark

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The Independent Online
THE TOWN of Street, in the serene Somerset countryside, is an unlikely setting for a story of business intrigue and family feuding that is threatening the future of Britain's best-known footwear concern.

The town's residents, dominated by the private company C&J Clark for 168 years, heard yesterday that it was planning to sell the business to the former sugar company, Berisford International, for pounds 160m.

The proposed sale is an attempt to defuse an emotional dispute between shareholders that has divided the Clark family, whose members own 70 per cent of the company.

But opposition to the sale is likely to be fierce. There are fears that the takeover could lead to more job losses in the recession-battered footwear industry, as Berisford moves to make shoes overseas in cheaper labour markets.

If the sale goes ahead, it will end a tradition of benevolence associated with the Quaker roots of the Clark family, which has built and endowed local projects for generations. There are still 1,000 Streetonians employed at the headquarters, although the last Clark factory in the town closed last year, with the loss of 170 jobs.

The decision to seek offers for the business, which has an annual turnover of almost pounds 600m, was taken after shareholders failed to agree on the direction of the company.

Dissident shareholders and directors are preparing to oppose the sale on the grounds that the business's value has been depressed by recession. They are also discontent that Clark slid into its first loss in the first half of last year and cut the dividend. A member of the rebel faction of the family said yesterday that the meeting's decision to seek bids for the business did not necessarily mean an offer should be accepted.

The annual meeting, scheduled for the end of April, may finally resolve the future of a company that has shod generations.