The Week In Review: Cheers! Pub group has bubbly future

Hardys & Hansons was created from the merger of two family owned brewers in 1930, and the clans still control it through voting shares. As a result, it has a low stock market profile, but the company has not performed dissatisfactorily.

Hardys & Hansons was created from the merger of two family owned brewers in 1930, and the clans still control it through voting shares. As a result, it has a low stock market profile, but the company has not performed dissatisfactorily.

It is an old-school mixture of brewing, pub and restaurant assets, including more than 250 pubs concentrated in Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Yorkshire. Of its venues, it manages about a third directly, with the rest rented to tenants. While its cask ale has declined in popularity, the company has moved with the times and puts on a very strong food offering at its community-focused venues.

The annual meeting yesterday was told that the company is having to absorb higher minimum wage costs and utility bills, but that was nothing new. Nor was the warning that growth from new properties will be a little lower this year because of the difficulty in finding good-value sites. Shareholders can take comfort that it will not overpay for acquisitions.

Indeed, its properties are very conservatively valued on the balance sheet, and there is scope to increase pay-outs to shareholders beyond the current dividend. Buy.

RECKITT BENCKISER

Reckitt Benckiser's results are as sparkling as a glass cleaned with its Finish PowerBall dishwashing tablets. The reputation of Bart Becht, chief executive, is as fragrant as a room freshened with its Airwick click spray. And the investors who have repeatedly called the top of its extraordinary share-price rise are left reaching for the Disprin. Investors who hop aboard now are paying a full price, for sure, but this is a vibrant consumer goods company with bid potential. Hold.

BAA

BAA owns seven UK airports, including the giant Heathrow, where it is three years away from unveiling a fifth terminal to accommodate the inexorable rise in air travel. That project is on time and on budget, while more immediate financial trends within the group also continue on the correct flight path. Hold.

CAMBRIDGE ANTIBODY TECHNOLOGY

Investors are paying a high price for the imagination of Peter Chambré, the biotech's chief executive. Imagination? Chambré needs to find an innovative way of spending his £159m cash pile. Buying in drugs that are already mid-way through human trials is the most obvious way forward, but so many companies are hunting for precisely the same thing so prices are high. New investors should wait.

EMBLAZE

Emblaze's main activity is making mobile phones for retailers in the Far East, and it is planning to enter the European market soon. It also has stakes in software companies with products offering television over telecoms networks and picture messaging. Its customers are spending again and it has a tighter grip on costs. Worth a punt.

ELAN

Three new products ought to drive growth at Elan. Tysabri is a remarkable new treatment for multiple sclerosis, which might have sales of $3bn a year when it becomes well-established. Prialt, for chronic pain, was also launched last year. And then there is work on its potential new Alzheimer's disease drug, which has suffered setbacks but could come to fruition around the end of the decade. Hold.

ALPHAMERIC

Bookies like to monitor how much cash is piling on to certain horses throughout their network of betting outlets, so they can narrow their odds. Alphameric is doing well as a provider of sales software to the betting industry. If only it hadn't taken such a gamble on providing software to the retail sector. It needs a better track record before we could recommend it. Avoid.

BRANDON HIRE

Brandon Hire has been renting out tools and building appliances to the construction industry for the past 35 years. Today, with 130 stores - 32 of which were acquired last year - it has a 6 per cent market share and growing. Fast. Buy.

MCBRIDE

McBride, the Buckinghamshire-based households goods group is the force behind the supermarket own-label products, behind products such as Asda toothpaste, Tesco washing powder and Sainsbury's bleach. The 6 per cent increase in half-year profits to £17.5m on sales also up 6 per cent at £268m that McBride achieved suggests it is capable of squaring up to its customers. But the shares are fully valued.

CORUS

Occasionally, a company that had appeared so troubled it looked as if it was about to go bust can transform its fortunes. Corus, the Anglo Dutch steel-maker, this week received a little more good news when the Competition Commission cleared a deal to sell its UK hot rolled steel business to Arcelor. Corus shares have bounced back sharply from the lows of 2003 but remain worth holding.

easyJet rising above turbulence

Cheese-and-pickle sarnies are off the menu on easyJet flights, replaced with tomato, mozzarella and pesto baguettes. With the company flying between an increasing number of destinations in Europe, the UK-centric menu was failing to appeal to the bulk of the no-frills airline's customers.

These little things are vital to an airline's financial health, when winning business in this cut-throat segment of the travel market depends on keeping the headline ticket prices as low as possible. By getting customers to buy more in-flight, or by insisting on excess baggage charges, the company has limited the decline in revenue per passenger. The winter fare war was not the "bloodbath" predicted, but investors will always need a strong stomach if they want to fly easyJet. Other areas of potential financial turbulence this year include fuel costs, which have risen sharply because of the rise in the oil price.

But don't forget the bigger picture. This airline is one of the great British entrepreneurial creations of the past few years. It flies 95 aircraft between 190 destinations and 58 airports, and we are many, many miles from a limit to the available growth in Europe, both in potential new routes and in higher frequencies of flights.

It is too early to say if easyJet will perform well over the Easter break, but the longer-term outlook is strong. Buy.

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