HovisThe boss of Hovis and Mr Kipling owner Premier Foods has quit just 18 months into a major turnaround of the debt-laden food group.

The departure of Michael Clarke, who joined the company from Kraft Foods in 2011, shocked the City as Premier's shares slumped by more than 9%.


Premier moved swiftly to replace Mr Clarke by announcing the appointment of Gavin Darby, who was the boss of Cable & Wireless Worldwide until its takeover last year. He spent 15 years in senior leadership roles at Coca-Cola before joining Vodafone in 2001.

The company said Mr Clarke, who is leaving in order to pursue other business opportunities, had delivered the initial turnaround of the company and set it on a course for sustainable profitable growth.

However, Clive Black, retail analyst at Shore Capital, said he could not hide his disappointment at Mr Clarke's departure.

He said: "The remedial work that he undertook to fundamentally allow Premier to survive merits commendation. However, that he is going just as the business needs to press on in a new chapter more dependent upon organic growth and trading than structural commercial engineering may be a concern."

Premier has been struggling under a £1.3 billion debt mountain following a spending spree which included Mr Kipling owner RHM, although it now looks to be on the mend after a "landmark" £1.4 billion refinancing deal last year.

Mr Clarke's turnaround plan for the group included the sale of a number of businesses to focus on eight "power brands", including Ambrosia and Bisto. He offloaded Sarson's vinegar and Haywards pickles to Japanese firm Mizkan last year while the group also announced it will close two bakeries with the loss of 900 jobs, having just lost a major £75 million supermarket contract.

Premier chairman David Beever said Mr Clarke and his team had done a "first class job" in stabilising the business and generating momentum in a challenging market.

Mr Darby will take the top job from February 4. He said he planned to invest a significant sum in Premier shares and looked forward to developing and growing Premier's power brands in the coming years.