Alpha’s crash landing

Alpha's crash landing

Prospects: Alpha's new chief executive launches a recovery plan

What’s happened

Is it a poison chalice? Difficult to say as yet, but the job of chief
executive at Alpha Airports, the airline catering business embroiled in
accounting difficulties, looks like a difficult one from any angle.

But the company has appointed a man who is used to pressure in the boardroom.
Peter Williams, whose appointment was revealed last week, is the former CEO and
finance director of everybody’s favourite up-market department store,
Selfridges.

He joins after Alpha’s chief executive and its FD were forced to resign
following the refusal of the company’s auditor to sign off the accounts. The
shares were suspended from trading and Alpha began attracting some very
unwelcome headlines.

What’s next

Williams has a big job to do now. The trouble stems from a £7.5m contract
that reports suggest was not properly represented in the accounts. The task
facing the man, who was once one of the most high profile businessmen and FDs in
the country, is to make sure the accounts show a true and fair view. This will
mean satisfying the board of Alpha, and the auditors at PricewaterhouseCoopers,
that all the revenues and contracts have been properly written down and
disclosed.

So first thing is to get a review underway of the contract in question and
co-ordinate with the new finance director, Tim Redburn who will be in post for
three months while a permanent replacement is found.

Redburn will be crucial over this period and Williams will want to make sure
they resolve the problem quickly. Having the shares suspended is a massive blow
to Alpha’s credibility and, though the resignations have gone some way to
address that problem, Williams will be expected to make it all better for the
shareholders. And he might just be the man to do it. When Selfridges demerged
from its parent company Sears in 1996, Williams was put in charge of restating
accounts going back five years.

If he can clean up Alpha’s books, Williams will next be tasked with building
shareholder value and raising revenues. This will be quite different from
running Selfridges, which had one main base, while Alpha operates out more than
70 airports in 13 countries. He will be on a steep learning curve and, if you’ll
excuse the pun, will want to get a flying start.

RETAIL THERAPY

Williams joined Selfridges in 1991 as finance director and was there until
February 2004when he quit his job as chief executive. Williams was viewed as
having played a key role in the store’s revival. He brought all IT and finance
functions in-house. He argued against the adoption of the euro and headed a
project to restate accounts going back five years.

Speaking to Accountancy Age at the time, Williams said: ‘It was a
very difficult time for everyone in the company and not least the finance team.’

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