BBA returns to growth and hits the acquisition trail

BBA, the acquisitive engineer, yesterday confirmed its return to growth after two years of reorganisation. Roberto Quarta, chief executive, reported a 19 per cent leap in pre-exceptional profits to pounds 141m last year and plans for a joint project to manufacture friction materials near Peking and a pounds 4m acquisition in Italy, making hi-tech absorbent materials. But profits fell pounds 3m short of market forecasts and the shares tumbled 17p to 350p.

Turnover at the continuing businesses rose 10 per cent to pounds 1.08bn while operating profits rose 26 per cent to pounds 146m. Earnings per share were up a quarter to 20.6p and the dividend rose from 6p to 7p.

After allowing for exceptional charges of pounds 52m in 1995, pre-tax profits more than doubled to pounds 142m. The acquisition of the remaining 32 per cent stake in Signature Flight Support in August, and Corovin, a non-woven textile business in Germany, cost pounds 97m. An agreement to buy International Airmotive in Dallas for pounds 176m was signed in December.

Corovin will give the group access to new technology which can be adapted throughout the group's non-woven hygiene business and provide access to new markets in Thailand, Saudi Arabia and South Africa. Duralay, the carpet underlay manufacturer, was sold for pounds 34m.

Turnover was equally split between the transportation and industrial divisions, but profits were split 40:60. The friction materials division overcame weak sales in Germany in the first half of the year and a downturn in the commercial vehicle market in Europe and Scandinavia in particular. The UK market was buoyant and BBA won new orders from Nissan and Rover.

In the US, BBA Friction won new orders from Ford and Chrysler and capacity at the Virginia plant is being doubled to meet increased demand. Signature won new ground handling and baggage contracts and the acquisition of International Airmotive adds engine overhaul and parts distribution facility.

The US market generated 56 per cent of turnover and 51 per cent of profit. Capital spending edged up to pounds 46m, but cash-flow was strong, net borrowing was halved to pounds 16m and gearing fell from 7 to 4 per cent.

Management has been exploiting synergies between the new and old businesses and developing new markets.