Robinson produces revival at Vestey

TERRY Robinson, the former Lonrho director parachuted in to save the Vestey empire from its bankers, yesterday disclosed a remarkable turnaround in the meat trader's fortunes in the 15 months since he took control.

Union International, the main holding company for the Vestey family's businesses, made a pre-tax profit of pounds 32.5m last year, compared with a loss of pounds 102m in 1991. The profit of pounds 30.8m before exceptional items was the highest for five years, and operating profits soared to pounds 44.9m from just pounds 3.1m.

The group has also reduced its debts from pounds 328m to pounds 202m, and the total is due to fall further when it completes a dollars 45.5m deal to sell its Brazilian farming business to the Vestey family trusts.

Mr Robinson was brought in after Tim Vestey, Union's chairman and a great-grandson of one of the empire's founders, had to ask the group's bankers for a standstill on debt repayments.

Yesterday Mr Robinson said that the first part of the recovery strategy drawn up last year had almost been completed. More than pounds 100m of non-core assets have been sold, including large tracts of farm land in Australia and South America. The UK business - including Dewhirst, the butcher shop chain - has been turned around, and the group is close to selling at least two of its five office buildings.

Mr Robinson and his team are now working on a long-term strategy based on food distribution in four main areas - the UK, Australia, New Zealand and the Far East.

In New Zealand, Union is inviting outside investors to take a 50 per cent stake in the business. It has had three approaches but may float the company if none of them is attractive.

At home, Dewhirst is now profitable after having lost over pounds 18m in 1991, and the abattoir business, British Meat, is benefiting from tougher Europen Community regulations, which have forced some smaller abattoirs out of business.

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