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

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The departure of Michael Clarke, who joined the company from Kraft Foods in 2011, shocked the City, with Premier’s shares slumping by more than 9% in early trading.

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 £1.3billion debt mountain following a spending spree which included Mr Kipling owner RHM, although it now looks to be on the mend after a “landmark” £1.4bn refinancing deal last year.

Mr Clarke’s turnaround plan for the group included the sale of a number of businesses, including its Branston pickle and Haywards picked onions businesses in Bury St Edmunds, to focus on eight “power brands”, including Ambrosia and Bisto.

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.

Last year Mr Clarke called for Britons to support the economic recovery by buying British brands.

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