Whatman faces tough profits battle

As he prepares the half-year results for the company, a DNA filtration technique specialist, Miller will be grappling with the possibility of writing off big losses as a result of the court action.

Although the lawsuits are not accountancy-related, if lost, they pose a serious threat to the company’s balance sheet.

In a suit filed last week, Whatman’s Biometra subsidiary in Florida was accused of infringing patented technology developed by laboratory equipment maker Strategene. Although the accuser has not sought damages so far, it says Whatman and another company are ‘offering for sale and promoting use of the patented invention’, and has asked the court to order them to stop.

But the suit that investors fear could hit the balance sheet and the one that Whatman is currently contesting in New Jersey is an age discrimination case that could cost the company about $5m (£3.3m).

The case was brought to court in 1997 by a disgruntled former executive who had been dismissed two years before. The executive alleges he was dismissed at 50 because of his age but could have worked until the age of 75.

But according to Whatman, the executive was appointed as part of a restructuring programme that came about when its two US filtration businesses were brought together.

Whatman was ordered to pay $3.8m for age discrimination plus more than $1m in legal fees by the New Jersey court. The company made no provisions on its balance sheet for the lawsuit, as two earlier rulings had been favourable.

But the $5m damages now threaten to seriously dent the company’s accounts, as profits for 2002 are expected to be about £7.3m.

Chief executive Tim Coombs is fighting the case and said: ‘In our opinion this extraordinary award is totally inequitable.’

While the lawsuit arose from a specific circumstance in Whatman’s history and will not deflect us from our current business focus, Whatman will vigorously pursue the matter through further stages of the New Jersey litigation process,’ he added.

In April, Whatman said trading was ‘in line with expectations’ despite the slowdown in the biotechnology sector.

Last year, the company’s results were hit by £9.2m of exceptional charges with a pre-tax loss of £3.5m. But the company promised savings of £3m per year as a result of its restructuring plan.

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