Ahold delays '02 results again, to Sept. 30

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NIJMEGEN, the Netherlands - The Dutch food retailer Royal Ahold NV surprised investors and analysts yesterday by delaying yet again the publication of its audited results for 2002, this time until the end of September.

The company had reassured nervous investors this spring that the new figures, restated after $1.1 billion in accounting irregularities, would be released in mid-August. Now the figures will not be made public until Sept. 30.

Ahold, which owns grocery chains in several countries including Giant Food, Stop & Shop, and Tops in the United States, blamed the sheer breadth of the forensic accountants' findings for the postponement.

The company said its auditors needed more time to review the material before approving the report.

The company, based in Zaandam northwest of Amsterdam, said that the delay was simply a procedural one and that it was confident no further irregularities could emerge.

"Once the books have been signed off on, nothing else can come out," said Martha van Dijk, a spokeswoman for Ahold.

Besides the delay, Ahold said its sales in the second quarter were down 12 percent to 13 billion euros ($14.8 billion). The company, which did not report earnings for the quarter, attributed most of the decline to the weak dollar.

Some analysts were unsettled by the annual earnings delay, but took heart in Ahold's disclosure that it may not need to draw on an extra line of credit this fall.

The company said it expected to repay a 678 million euro convertible bond that is due Sept. 30.

"That is the main issue at Ahold right now: cash flow, cash flow, cash flow," said Ton van Ooijen, an analyst at SNS Securities in Amsterdam. But he added that the earnings delay undermined the company's credibility.

"It will increase the uncertainties surrounding the stock," van Ooijen said.

An Ahold spokesman, Walter Samuels, declined to discuss concerns about the company's credibility.

"It is not up to us to answer that question," Samuels said. "That is up to our stakeholders and the market."

The company also restated sales lower for the past two years.

The huge retailer is being investigated by the U.S. Justice Department, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Dutch public prosecutors office.

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