The Investment Column: The tables are turning for MFI thanks to its trade arm Howden

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The Independent Online

Then, earlier this year, the group's trade arm, Howden Joinery, looked to have stumbled when 20-plus per cent sales growth dwindled to a mere 4 per cent. What with the £295m pension deficit and the glum outlook for retailers, shareholders were unnerved.

But yesterday, the company held out hope that a recovery might be in sight, as interim profit topped (reduced) forecasts. Though margins at the retail chain took a pasting, down 3.5 percentage points, this was offset by progress at Howden.

The retail chain swung to a £12.9m loss from a £2.2m operating profit the previous year, and given the dismal outlook for the sector, the group is not banking on getting it back into the black until early 2006. But John Hancock, the chief executive, is so confident the company has cracked its IT issues that he has set up a customer charter, setting out new guidelines on service. Adverts for one of MFI's seemingly continuous sales have been playing round-the-clock since January, helping entice customers back. The advertising push cost £7m but it looks money well spent.

At Howden, like-for-like sales growth accelerated to 11 per cent for the first half, after efforts to get builders to cement orders before the summer break. With 370 depots across the UK, and a fledgling business in France, MFI has big hopes for its trade business, which provides useful ballast to its faltering retail arm. The division's operating profits rose 27 per cent to £43.6m.

Perhaps the best hope for MFI to be rechristened "My Future Inheritance" came from the reduction in the group's pension deficit, which is deterring potential bidders. It has slashed a £50m additional pension liability to just £5m by offering pension plan members a cash windfall in exchange for giving up the right to future claims - at a cost of just £16m. What's more, MFI has recovered £12m for the dodgy advice that caused its liabilities to rocket, cutting its gross pension deficit to £255m. We liked the shares in January for the takeover hopes they offered and we still do. Hold.

LCI bets on expansion success

High rollers often turn the tables on casino owners such as London Clubs International (LCI), which said yesterday it had made a pre-tax loss of £1.4m for the year to the end of March after some wealthy customers cleaned up.

New regulations to prevent money laundering, which require guests to show photographic identification, have also dented LCI's results, as a number of wannabe punters without the necessary documents had to be turned away at the door. Two of LCI's flagship venues, Fifty and The Sportsman, were also closed for much of the year for refurbishment.

Still, LCI's prospects are improving. The newly passed Gambling Act will soon allow casinos to advertise for the first time. Double the number of slot machines can be installed, and with a portfolio of large venues, LCI should be able to make the most of these new allowances.

The Act provides 16 new casino licences, but LCI is still winning licences under the old regime. It has another five, in towns such as Nottingham, Manchester and Glasgow, which will extend LCI's reach in the provinces.

LCI is undoubtedly one of the best placed in the sector to benefit from gaming opportunities. Hold on to your chips.

Sesame uncertainty hangs over Misys

After a difficult few years, Misys - which specialises in providing IT solutions to the financial services industry - has seen a turnaround in its fortunes over the past 12 months. Having suffered three consecutive years of falling IT spend by the banking sector - its largest set of clients - the past year has finally seen a reversal of the trend.

Meanwhile, its US healthcare division also appears to be in good shape, positioned to take advantage of President Bush's plans to give each US citizen an electronic healthcare record.

So Misys' IT business appears to be making a solid recovery, but the main uncertainty for shareholders comes from the other side of its business - its financial-adviser network, Sesame. Having restructured the business over the past few months, to take advantage of new regulations governing financial advice, Misys is banking on this regime taking off.

Misys' concern is not for the long term. Its chief executive, Kevin Lomax, reiterated yesterday that he intends to get shot of the business within the next 12 months, via a flotation or a trade sale. Although he claims to have an army of buyers queuing around the block, shareholders will want to see the management secure a good price for a division which accounts for one-third of its annual revenues. Operating profits at Sesame were ominously down 40 per cent over the past year, which will not help its case.

With such uncertainty, now may not be the time to buy into Misys. Existing investors should hold on.

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