Derek Pain: Mears takes pride of place as markets are becalmed in doldrums

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The Independent Online

During my two weeks' absence – attending a granddaughter's wedding in Hungary – hopes have mounted that at least some of the old takeover momentum is returning. But with share turnover remaining in the doldrums, there has been little evidence of increased investor excitement. Still, it's been a fairly busy time for five constituents (and a former member) of the no pain, no gain portfolio. Pride of place must go to Mears, the support services group, which justified its comments that it had not experienced the difficulties that have so severely damaged its arch rival, Connaught.

Adjusted first-half pre-tax profits rose by 42 per cent to £13.2m. Using the same yardstick the stockbroker Collins Stewart suggests a figure of £30.4m for the year and feels confident enough to predict £35m next year and almost £40m in the following 12 months.

Mears' two main activities – social housing and domiciliary care – should continue to make headway despite the Government's cash squeeze. Indeed, cuts could offer further opportunities for Mears, which should also score from the difficulties being experienced by once high-flying Connaught.

The brewer Marston's rolled out a mixed trading statement. Managed pubs are doing well but the tenanted section had another bitter session. Still, the group remains on track to meet profit forecasts. The stockbroker Numis is aiming for a pre-tax figure of £72m. Such a performance would be a long way from Marston's halcyon days when it topped £100m but its shares were then much higher. They are on a 6 per cent-plus yield, although there is talk a dividend cut looms.

Another constituent reporting was SnackTime, selling snacks and drinks through vending machines. During the year it acquired its major competitor, a development which helped lift sales 77 per cent to £11.5m.

The results are a good example of just how confusing profit announcements have become. The group recorded an operating profit of £1.6m and an adjusted pre-tax figure of £1.2m. Yet it actually suffered a loss as it made a £1.8m profit on its takeover of rival, MBM.

Nevertheless, it is possible to be encouraged by the figures. The group has beefed up its sales team and established a marketing operation. It also had to incur rebranding, redundancy and reorganisation costs. There are hopes that the current year's profit will emerge around the £1.6m mark. Lighthouse, the accountancy constituent, has added to its cash pile through a disposal. It has sold its loss-making pensions administration business for £1.85m. Its chairman, David Hickey, describes the pensions operation as "sub scale". The group already had more cash in the bank than its £11.5m capitalisation. Last year it produced profits of only £93,000 but should top £1m this year.

Nighthawk Energy, the US-focused oil and gas group, has caused a stir by threatening legal action against bulletin-board users that it believes have made damaging and defamatory comments about the company. It has managed to trace them and is now talking to its legal eagles to decide what, if any, action should be taken.

The group and its chief executive, David Bramhill, have been subjected to a furious debate on certain internet sites. And there is little doubt that comments have impacted, if only briefly, on the group's shares. Now it seems that Mr Bramhill, who has also suffered telephone abuse, has had enough.

Already other companies have followed the Nighthawk move and I suspect many are closely monitoring the initiative to decide if action is worthwhile. I have heard suggestions that Nighthawk's attitude represents another blow to free speech. But I do not subscribe to such an unfocused view.

Finally, the former portfolio member, DataCash. The electronic payments group has surrendered to a 360p a share offer from the credit card giant, MasterCard. It values DataCash at £333m.

I recruited the shares at 77.5p; they went on to brush 200p before I decided to lock in a 92p profit, selling at 169.5p. I was happy at the time with such a reward as the company faced problems over the United States' online gaming policy. In the event the US attitude does not appear to have created too much difficulty. It would have been pleasant to have held on and reaped the takeover windfall but I am content with the portfolio's DataCash lot.

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