Fresh fruit glut holds back Albert Fisher: Operating profits dive at European fruit and vegetable importer

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OPERATING profits at Albert Fisher, the fruit and vegetable importer, slumped by 20 per cent in the six months to 28 February as the European glut of fresh produce, coupled with the effects of the recession, continued to make life difficult.

Profit margins were slashed everywhere except in the preparation of seafood. Trading margins on the importation of fresh produce were 0.5 per cent, down from 4.1 per cent.

Margins in food processing - which includes the cutting, washing and freezing of fresh fruit and vegetables for supermarkets - were 5.3 per cent in the half, compared with 7.5 per cent in the first half last year.

Operating profits in seafood, however, jumped 75 per cent to pounds 9.5m and profit margins widened from 8.9 per cent to 13.8 per cent. Fisher benefited from a particularly good harvest of cockles and mussels.

Stephen Walls, who yesterday swapped his non-executive chairmanship for an executive one, was also downbeat on current trading. He said: 'We have yet to see any significant impact of an upturn in the UK economy on our markets, with continuing pressure on margins following the devaluation of the pound.'

Fisher is mostly a commodity trader and it supplies own-brand products. This is inherently less profitable than branded goods. However, Mr Walls said the company was attempting to explore opportunities where it could add value.

Although the operating performance was disappointing, pre-tax profitability looked better. Taxable profits were pounds 25m, up from pounds 12m. However, the rise was only made possible by restating figures for the first half to February 1992 to bring the accounts in line with the new FRS3 reporting standard.

The comparable result in yesterday's figures of pounds 12m was revised down from the pounds 37m disclosed this time last year.

Underlining the need for caution, Fisher left the interim dividend unchanged at 1.85p. The payout is covered 1.4 times by earnings per share of 2.7p, up from a restated 1.2p.

Albert Fisher was built up quickly in the 1980s with a string of acquisitions paid for by issuing shares. Yesterday the stock fell 2p to 69p. In 1990 the shares were near double that, but are well above the 31p record low of last September.