Derek Pain: Pride of its alley lines up the skittles and sends them flying

 

Essenden, the tenpin bowling and family entertainment group, has suddenly emerged as a stock market star.

The Aim-traded shares, which only a few months ago were bowling along at near 20p, have topped the 100p mark and seem set for an exciting future.

Uplifting trading, hopes of what has been described as a "transformational" deal and a rewarding way of eliminating loan stock are largely responsible for the upsurge.

The no pain, no gain portfolio descended on the shares at the back end of 2012 at 24p. At the time I was impressed with the way Nick Basing, chief executive since 2009, was reshaping the business and I felt the market was overlooking the potential recovery play offered by the shares.

The arrival of Essenden represented a second time around for the portfolio. In an earlier incarnation, when the company had been known as Georgica, it had been a profitable investment. But after the shares were sold by the portfolio, losses occurred.

Pre-tax profits last year were £3.6m against a £71,000 loss in the year before. Annual sales rose by 0.6 per cent, with an 8.3 per cent increase in the final quarter. In the first 11 weeks of this year, the advance was 13.5 per cent.

Now to the loan stock. It is to be erased by exchanging 1.33 shares for each unit. The notes are traded on the fringe ISDX market. The last price I saw was 80p, although it has been nearer 20p. Extinguishing the stock should enhance takeover prospects. I suspect a target is already lined up.

Mr Basing talks of a "defining" year ahead and points out that the loan stock is a "significant barrier to securing funding", presumably for the acquisition. Capitalisation is now £21.5m.

The loan stock was issued to shareholders on a one-for-one basis. The idea was to return cash through redemptions. But the plan failed after the group ran into trouble and was unable to deliver. The traded price of the notes, issued at the equivalent of 100p, collapsed and many shareholders regarded them as little more than "dead" money.

Another portfolio constituent, Mears, the support services group, has had a good year. But for exceptional charges – largely relating to the sale of a loss-making business and bedding down acquisitions –the pre-tax figure would have emerged at £36.6m against £29m the year before.

After allowing for the special costs, the "true" pre-tax figure is up 9 per cent at £21.7m. The dividend is lifted 10 per cent to 8.8p a share. Revenue was a record £898.2m and should increase in the current year with 92 per cent of forecast income already in the bag.

The order book is £3.8bn, with the two divisions, social housing and home care, continuing to attract increasing attention.The shares are, as I write, about 500p against the 272p the portfolio paid in March 2008.

Finally to Spirit Pub Co, the chain that relies heavily on its managed estate; the shares, recruited at 42p in August 2011, are now about 81p. Stockbroker analysts expect them to move higher, with Peel Hunt saying it is looking for 95p while Numis is settling for a 110p tag.

In a trading statement, the group said managed turnover over an eight-week period was 6.1 per cent higher and leased income advanced 6.0 per cent. Over 28 weeks the improvement was 4.8 per cent (managed) and 2.6 per cent (leased). George Osborne's generosity over drink taxes should keep sales rolling along.

yourmoney@independent.co.uk

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