Supporters of hungover Matthew Clark face their day of reckoning


This could be an uncomfortable week for Tony Dye and other supporters of Matthew Clark, the once bubbly drinks group which is suffering from an alcopop hangover.

Interim figures, due tomorrow, will offer investors the first detailed guide to the extent of the group's difficulties. And Mr Dye, the man banking on a stock market crash, should be more interested than most. He has for long backed Clark and his underperforming PDFM fund has a near-20 per cent stake.

Throughout the 1990s the British wine and cider group made impressive headway under the direction of Peter Aikens, a former Courage brewery executive. In May its shares were riding at an 801p peak and Clark, taking in such ciders as Gaymer and Taunton, seemed to be riding on the crest of an Aikens-inspired drinks wave.

Suddenly it all started to go wrong. Some institutions were dismayed by a pounds 431,000 relocation allowance received by Mr Aikens.

It was pointed out that the payment, made when Clark moved its head office from Guildford to Bristol, represented more than pounds 4,000 per mile.

But the unhappiness over the payment was lost in a mist of outright rage when in September the then chairman, Michael Cottrell, revealed at the yearly shareholders' meeting that cider profits had been savaged by the craze for alcopops.

Clark's shares plunged as analysts slashed their profit forecasts from more than pounds 70m to around pounds 50m.

PDFM had topped up its stake just before the shareholders' meeting although its associated securities business, UBS, was thought to have turned bearish.

Mr Dye, who has 15 per cent of his funds in cash because he is unhappy about the outlook for shares, decided to take the Clark blow on the chin and even increased his shareholdings after the profit warning.

Although UBS was rumoured to be uneasy other stockbrokers were caught on the hop. Buy circulars had been produced only weeks before the shock warning.

With so many red faces Clark in general, and Mr Aikens in particular, have been given a rough ride. The shares lost 35 per cent of their value in a day and continued to slide, hitting 258.5p.

In recent weeks takeover rumours have encouraged a modest recovery. So have cautious hopes that the interim results will not look quite as sour as some expect. Last year the half-way profit was pounds 15.4m.

One of the stories which has helped encourage the shares to 305p is that Philip Morris, the US giant striving to develop Millers lager in this country, plans a bid.

It is rumoured that Morris wants to build a UK brewery and sees absorbing Clark, with its drinks wholesaling operation, as ensuring Millers has adequate distribution.

Guinness is another in the frame. It has dipped a delicate toe in the cider market and could be interested in making a determined splash with Clark. Bass is also seen as a possible predator.

If this week's figures do not offer any comfort Clark's days of independence could quickly draw to a sad end. As its big rival, HP Bulmer, has not suffered from the alcopop debacle there must be a question mark over its marketing and pricing strategy.

There are suggestions it cut its promotional spend too much. If that is the case it could face such a long haul back that a bid would put the group out of its misery.

Although profit statements in only the second week of the new year are still few and far between the paucity of company announcements will be augmented by another flurry of Christmas trading reports.

Tomkins, the buns to guns conglomerate which has remained aloof from the demerger tendency that has attracted some of its contemporaries, is one with a profits announcement. It produces interim figures today.

Chairman Greg Hutchings seems wedded to the sprawling, unrelated concept of the old-fashioned conglomerate and more buys, rather than disposals or a break-up, seem to be the most likely development.

The group's shares are near their 12-month high suggesting today's results will be encouraging. Tomkins is doing well in the US, where its Gates acquisition is meeting expectations, and a 27 per cent profits jump to around pounds 160m is expected. An 11 per cent dividend advance to 3p is also on the cards.

The dismembering of Lonrho, Tiny Rowland's old international trading group, has come to a halt. Dieter Bock, the German businessman who swept in, much to Mr Rowland's eventual dismay, to reshape the group, is now a non-executive director without a power base. Anglo American, the South African mining group is the new driving force, with a 27 per cent interest, although the Eurocrats of Brussels are far from happy and are probing its involvement which, they see, as having implications for the platinum market.

The Euro interest will almost certainly delay splitting Lonrho's mining business from its remaining trading assets. Its UK hotels have been sold but the luxury Princess chain has yet to find a buyer. On Thursday Lonrho is due to report year's figures.

It could also offer guidance about its future direction. Currencies and metal prices have not been favourable and pre-exceptional profits should be around pounds 166m.

Carpetright, also on Thursday, should have a cheerful tale with half- year profits likely to be 40 per cent up at pounds 14m.

The creation of retail star Phil Harris, now Lord Harris, the group should have scored from the uplift in the economy and, in particular, the residential housing market.

It should also be a beneficiary of the spending boom which should be created by the stampede by mutual societies to convert to plc status.

Carpetright has a fine record but its aggressive stores opening programme has been likened to carpet bombing - and sooner rather than later it could run out of targets.

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