Clarks chief executive Peter Bolliger is optimistic that trading conditions are improving at home and abroad following the downturn.

He made his comments in his final annual shareholders’ report, which revealed a 4.4% rise in operating profits before exceptionals to £97.4m in the year to January 31.

Post-tax profits dipped from £62m last year to £60.8m owing to the £11.8m cost of financing the deficit in the Clarks UK pension fund.

Clarks sales climbed 4.6% to £1.17bn over the year and Bolliger said he was heartened by improved stability in trading conditions.

He said: “The worst of the recession may be behind us, but we cannot rely on a strong resurgence of consumer confidence and discretionary spending to kick-start our own trading growth. The new financial year has begun relatively well. Retail trading conditions in the UK have not been easy.”

He added: “In North America in particular, where our fortunes have been dented most strongly over the past two years, we have benefited from a more stable trend in market demand and a measure of recovery in consumer confidence.”

Over the year, Clarks’ UK retail division delivered a 0.6% increase in like-for-like sales on the back of good back-to-school sales. The UK and Republic of Ireland wholesale division experienced mixed fortunes, with major account Brantano cutting back its Clarks order volumes, a weak demand in the independent sector and concerns over credit insurance.

After 16 years at the helm, Bolliger is handing over the reins to Melissa Potter, whose new strategy is expected to include a focus on developing new product categories and spearheading Clarks’ entry into the Indian market.