View from City Road: Caution would be wise for Walls

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The Independent Online
SHARES in Albert Fisher, the food processor and distributor, may have risen 28p since they hit their low of 31p in August but that does not ensure that today's annual general meeting will be easy going.

For all his faults Tony Millar, the chief executive who was ousted in July, tried to persuade institutions to attend last year's meeting. True to form, most opted to stay in their offices rather than venture out to a public meeting. Some may have come to regret that decision, given the sad events of the subsequent year. Will they turn up now that Stephen Walls, formerly of Arjo Wiggins Appleton and of Plessey, is in charge?

Those who do go to the Royal Lancaster Hotel in London should ask three questions. How does the board justify a payment of pounds 852,000 to Mr Millar? It is a high reward for what large shareholders saw as failure.

How can it operate without a chief executive? Mr Walls is non-executive chairman but there should be someone to run the show on a day-to-day basis. He has had six months to find a group chief executive.

Shareholders also want assurances about the security of the dividend. Though it was well covered by earnings, large extraordinary items meant the company had to dig into reserves last year to maintain the payout.

Yesterday's 3p rise to 59p suggests that some investors at least are hopeful of a confident statement from Mr Walls. But he would be wise to be cautious at this stage, and to avoid raising expectations only for them to be dashed once more.

Meanwhile shareholders can try to console themselves with news of higher fruit and vegetable prices. Having worked against the company for much of the past year, these are at last going its way.

(Photograph omitted)

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