The Week In Review: Is this move crafty, or a bodge job?
Saturday 05 February 2005
The £950m acquisition of Wickes moves Travis Perkins from its traditional focus on sales to tradespeople, into the bigger and faster-growing DIY market. Will the acquisition prove a piece of successful craftsmanship, or a bodge-job?
Travis has an awesome reputation for integrating its acquisitions, but Wickes has increased the risks of holding Travis shares. The company has previously fought shy of the DIY enthusiast, who takes up more time and spends less. Different management skills are required. And the deal comes just at the moment that Frank McKay, the chief executive for five years, retires.
The profileration of Changing Rooms-style programmes on TV tempts one to believe the DIY market will grow forever, but it is highly correlated to the housing market. If stagnant house prices means fewer people moving home, then DIY retailers could struggle. As a relatively small player, Wickes will suffer if its rivals launch a price war to compensate. The shares have rocketed past all but one analyst's target price. Take profits.
Gamblers ought to be attracted to this mining company, which has a steady stream of news due this year: Minco is moving forward with plans to dredge flakes of silver from the bed of a lake in central Mexico (it will shortly begin the search for project finance and production could begin next year), and drilling reports are due from its newly acquired gold and silver projects nearby. Have a punt.
CARTER & CARTER
Carter & Carter is paid by the Government and car manufacturers to train car technicians through 42-month apprenticeships. The long-term nature of the courses give the company a reliable income stream and there is room for more manufacturer-branded training schemes. But Philip Carter, founder of the business, sold £7m in the flotation, which never inspires confidence. Wait for a few more miles on the clock before taking a ride.
It is difficult to make a decent living as a food supplier, what with the mighty supermarkets flexing their muscle to drive down prices. To do so, a food group needs posh products that people will pay up for, and it needs to keep a very, very close eye on costs across the business. Cranswick - which sells fresh pork, gourmet sausages and delicatessen cooked meats - fits the bill. Buy.
The City never forgets, but it might forgive. Terry Sadler, the medicines entrepreneur whose last venture, Bioglan, went bust in 2002, is back with another company specialising in skin treatments. York Pharma, though, could do with a little less hype if Mr Sadler is to triumph. The company has £5m in the kitty to fund three development projects for a year or so, but shareholders will pay a heavy price for setbacks. Avoid.
Autonomy's search software is used by government agencies and multi-national companies to access information from the internet, internal e-mails, computer desktops and documents. Sales of its TV-on-demand software kick in next year. For now, corporate IT spending continues to grow and existing blue chip customers are likely to order additional licences, and Autonomy is launching product upgrades. Hold.
Having hooked customers means tobacco companies rake in cash, and Imperial Tobacco is handing £450m back to investors through share buy-backs. This will prop up the share price but it rather suggests that, because tobacco stocks look quite expensive, acquisition bargains have been scarce. Without an acquisition or a breakthrough in emerging markets such as Eastern Europe or China, Imperial could be running out of air. Avoid.
Caffè Nero wants to double in size to 400 shops and says the market for branded coffee shop chains shows no sign of slowing. Starbucks, Costa and Caffè Nero control 60 per cent of the market, so there is scope to continue taking business from independents. But the shares trade on a scalding valuation. New investors should avoid.
SMITH & NEPHEW
With obesity on the rise in the West, more and more people are requiring knee surgery to replace all or part of a joint that just can't stand the weight being put on it. And with gym-going on the rise among people trying to avoid obesity and get fit, more of us are requiring surgery to repair knees damaged in training. Sit on the couch eating chips, or get out the house and jog, either way Smith & Nephew wins. A buy for the long term.
Bellway is the City's favourite housebuilder. The company builds budget homes mainly in the north, and scores at or near the top of the class on operating margins and forward sales. If it wasn't for the scars of the early Nineties housing market crash, Bellway's shares would be double their price. Hold.
Pension business takes a knock
Friends Provident, the life insurance and pensions group, managed only a 1 per cent rise in new business in 2004 - paltry in comparison to the double-digit growth of its larger rivals.
The drop in its core group pensions business was alarming. Friends blames this on companies not wanting to alter their pension arrangements before the wave of regulatory change sweeping the sector is over. However, many advisers are telling company pension managers to steer clear of Friends until the merger between F&C and Isis, the company which invests Friends' clients' money, has bedded in.
But there remains plenty to be positive about at Friends. Having secured a number of ties with financial-adviser networks over the past six months, it is one of the better-placed insurers to take advantage of "depolarisation", the new rules on where financial products can be sold. It hasn't yet signed up a bank to sell its products, but it stands every chance of securing a deal soon.
New revenue streams are also promised, as its recently acquired offshore business begins to contribute, and as Friends launches a push in individual pensions.
Friends shares are not overpriced, but for investors looking to get fresh exposure to the life insurance sector, stocks such as Legal & General and Prudential promise to perform better in the short term.
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