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Unipart staff share in pounds 24m paper profit

More than 1,000 employees of the Unipart car components company are about to share in paper profits of almost pounds 24m from the company's share option scheme, it emerged yesterday.

The staff all took part in the so-called Star Options scheme, launched by Unipart in 1994 and billed as "an executive style options programme available to all employees". It was created to encourage deeper employee involvement in the privately owned company.

From next month the 1,100 scheme members will be able to exercise options to buy some 20 million shares. Based on the last valuation of Unipart shares, carried out in 1996, each share will net a profit on paper of pounds 1.19. Unipart shares are currently worth pounds 2.30, compared with just 5p when the company was split off from Rover Group in 1987. The price is likely to increase significantly in another valuation later this year.

The 1,100 employees were allocated five share options for every one share they bought. The average allocation was 3,500 shares, giving each of the staff 17,500 options, netting paper gains of pounds 20,825.

John Neill, chief executive, is the biggest beneficiary, though he insisted his application to buy shares had been scaled back more than other employees after the scheme was heavily oversubscribed.

Unipart said Mr Neill had been awarded 101,900 options giving profits on paper of pounds 121,261. He said: "I was one of the trustees of the scheme and I was one of the most heavily scaled back."

Though Unipart's shares are not traded on the stock market, employees can sell them twice yearly through an internal market. More than half the group's shares are owned by staff, with about 20 per cent held by Rover and rest with large institutional investors.

News of the payouts came as Unipart marked its tenth anniversary as an independent company by announcing a 17 per cent surge in sales last year to a record pounds 1.011bn.

"When we bought the business back in the 1980s people thought it wouldn't go on for more than two or three years," said Mr Neill.

Pre-tax profits increased by a smaller margin of 5 per cent, to pounds 34.3m, largely because Unipart raised its investment spending last year. Investment this year could reach about pounds 90m, after the group's move to form five new joint venture companies, three of which supply parts to Honda's UK manufacturing operations. The joint ventures are expected to create some 400 jobs, bolstering Unipart's 3,800- strong workforce.

Mr Neill again emphasised that Unipart's investment plans would have been restricted if the group was quoted on the stock market. A long-standing advocate of the concept of stakeholding, he went on:

"We can afford to take a long-term view even if it hurts profits in the short term. If we were publicly quoted we would have to design counter- measures to satisfy capital tourists who want to enter and exit the company at will."

However Unipart's philosophy stops short of encouraging trade union involvement. Earlier this week Mr Neill launched a scathing assault on the Labour Party's employment policies, which would in effect force plants to recognise unions if a majority of staff voted for it. He claimed they were "foolish" and "a step backward".