Worry at Fisher collapse
By Andrew Shirley
ANXIOUS East Anglian and Kentish vegetable producers are awaiting the outcome of the collapse of one of the areas biggest food processors.
Fisher Foods, which supplied all the big supermarkets, went into receivership on May 23 after its struggling parent company, Manchester-based fresh and frozen produce and seafood group Albert Fisher, failed to organise bank funding for a reputed £125m debt burden.
It is not known how much is owed to producers, but a spokeswoman for receivers KPMG said anybody who had supplied goods and had not been paid would be treated as unsecured creditors, suggesting that they will be at the back of the queue for payment.
Local credit insurance firm Beckett Group said it had already been contacted by a number of clients with claims for unpaid bills worth £250,000 and more were expected. The NFU has appointed accountant Deloitte & Touche to advise growers, but as yet vice-president Michael Paske said he hadnt heard from anybody who had been "financially embarrassed".
"The financial situation at the company had been well known for a long time so hopefully most people took out some kind of insurance against bad debts if they could get it."
But Bernard Stewart-Deane, marketing director at Beckett, doubted that everybody would be covered. "Across the industry it is a very low percentage of people who are insured against bad debts. And because the company was known to be a risk, any insurance may not cover the full exposure."
Mike Attew, chairman of Norwich pea and bean co-op Aylsham Growers, said Fisher Foods was the producer groups only customer and £0.5m was still outstanding for last seasons crop. However, he confirmed the amount was 100% insured.
Mr Attew said he was more worried about the prospects for the 3500t of peas and 1500t of dwarf beans due to be delivered by Aylshams 50 pulse growers this season. "If the worst came to the worst the vining peas could be combined as dry peas, but there is not much else we could do with the beans."
Despite this, he still reckoned it was better the firm had gone to the wall before the 2002 harvest rather than after it. "A couple of months ago they had problems paying us, so there would have been no chance of getting any credit insurance for what is in the ground now, even if the banks had managed to keep them going that long."
Mr Attew said he was confident a buyer would be found by the receiver. "Fisher accounted for 20-30% of the UK pea crop and had invested a lot of money in its Kings Lynn factory, so I think it is a significant enough business for somebody to take on."
Mick McLoughlin, who is handling the disposal of the firm, added: "Given the strong market position of the company, we are hopeful of concluding a sale of each of the businesses quickly. Over 70 enquiries have been received and we are continuing to trade the business as usual."
But Mr Stewart-Deane said there was no guarantee a new owner would honour existing contacts and may well renegotiate them to lower levels.
The collapse is thought by analysts to date back to over-ambitious expansion during the 1980s when the firm grew from a £7m grocery operation into an international player with turnover peaking at £784m in 1991. But the rapid growth, which involved the acquisition of 50 businesses, left the group saddled with a massive mountain of debt that consecutive executives have been unable to scale. *