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Tuesday, 24 April, 2001, 17:11 GMT 18:11 UK
Kvaerner down despite profit rise
Kjell Almskog, Kvaerner's chief
Almskog is not jumping for joy, despite an unexpected rise in profits
The Anglo-Norwegian engineering group Kvaerner's share price fell 2.3% on Tuesday, despite a sharp and unexpected rise in the company's first quarter profits.

Kjell Inge Rokke, Aker RGI
Rokke, a flamboyant business man who likes to own speed boats, massive yachts and football teams
Investors remained concerned about the growing tension between the company's board and its management over a proposal for a partial merger with its arch-rival Aker Maritime.

And analysts said investors were unsettled by a sharp rise in the company's debts to 6.1bn kroner, a rise of 678m during the quarter.

"I'm surprised by the rise," said one analyst. "I didn't like that."

Sceptical boss

Ahead of the results, analysts had been divided in their predictions for Kvaerner's pre-tax profits, which ranged from 100m to 157m and averaged 126m kroner.

I started out with nothing in 1982 and ended up with 17 modern trawlers operating in Alaska in 2000

Kjell Inge Rokke
In the event, most of them were surprised by the rise to 151m, up sharply on the 10m figure seen during the same period last year.

Yet even the Kvaerner management remained subdued.

"We're not jumping for joy about it, but with the starting point we've had, this has to be a pleasant confirmation that we are on the right track," chief executive Kjell Almskog said.

Merger proposal dismissed

Mr Almskog may have had more pressing concerns on his mind, a recent proposal to merge Aker Maritime with Kvaerner's shipping and the oil and gas divisions.

Kvaerner shipbuilders
Rokke has offered to merge Aker Maritime's oil, gas and shipping operations...
"It is our view that this proposal ... does not promote [Kvaerner's long-term strategy] and is not in the best interests of shareholders," Mr Almskog said.

Mr Almskog stressed the strategic importance of Kvaerner's oil and gas division which was the strongest unit during the first quarter with year-on-year operating profits rising from 6m to 96m kroner.

Profits for its engineering and construction division fell from 166m to 117m kroner.

Merger still possible

But rather than listening loyally to Mr Almskog's visions for the future, which involved pushing ahead with plans to split Kvaerner into two or three divisions, many analysts called for a solution to a dispute with Kvaerner's top shareholders.

Kjell Almskog, Kvaerner's chief
...but Almskog has angrily refused the invite
The dispute arose early this month when the man in control of Aker Maritime, the flamboyant billionaire industrialist Kjell Inge Rokke, tried to rally the support of major Kvaerner share holders who also hold Aker Maritime stock.

In exchange for the share holders helping him secure a successful merger with Aker Maritime, Mr Rokke offered to buy their Aker Maritime shares at a 78% premium.

Kvaerner's management sent a letter to all 19,000 Kvaerner share holders, warning that backing Mr Rokke could be in breach of the law if their attempts at gaining advantages for themselves was deemed to be detrimental to other share holders.

Secure vote

Aker Maritime already owns 17.8% of Kvaerner but it could have controlled as much as 26.7%.

The industrial vision Rokke wraps himself in is merely a fictitious construction

Christian Bjelland
Kvaerner chairman
Early on Tuesday, the company sold options to buy a further 8.9% of Kvaerner's shares.

The sale was part of Mr Rokke's financial engineering efforts.

In December last year, the EU Commission's competition watchdog shut down a probe into the effects of the merger between the two competitors after Aker Maritime agreed to sell the options.

The watchdog also said that if the options were not sold, Mr Rokke would not be allowed to vote at Kvaerner's annual general meeting on 4 May.

Selling the options on Tuesday did two things for Rokke, it diverted attention away from Mr Almskog's efforts at talking up Kvaerner and it made clear that Mr Rokke is on the warpath and that he intends to be an active player at the AGM in May.

That Mr Rokke means business was made even more obvious when it was revealed that he lost 300m kroner on the sale of the options.

New money meets old

The dispute between Mr Almskog' Kvaerner and Mr Rokke's Aker has lasted for months, with much of it fought in public in the Norwegian media.

Many observers describe it as a clash between new and old money.

Mr Almskog made his mark working for the Swiss-Swedish industrial company ABB where he built its oil and gas division from scratch.

Observers see him as an industrialist who has been shaped by the ethos of the Swedish Wallenberg family, often described as the "royal family" of Swedish business.

Industrial vision

Mr Rokke, who describes himself as a "dyslectic fisherman", on the other hand, is an outsider from rural Western Norway.

A self-made man, he left school as a teenager to work at sea.

"I started out with nothing in 1982 and ended up with 17 modern trawlers operating in Alaska in 2000," Mr Rokke writes on his investment company's website.

Many in Norway's established business community turn their noses up at Mr Rokke's aggressive style of conducting business, and at his sometimes lavish spending habits.

He is an owner and a director of Wimbledon Football Club, races speedboats and has spent months adding luxury fittings to one of the most lavish yachts ever ordered.

Many refuse to accept Mr Rokke as a serious industrialist, a point made by Kvaerner's chairman Christian Bjelland in a letter published in the newspaper Aftenposten.

Mr Bjelland insisted that "the industrial vision Rokke wraps himself in is merely a fictitious construction".

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