Bottom Line: Contraction pains

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The Independent Online
THERE will be little surprise among Southern Business Group's many disgruntled customers that the price the company has paid for cleaning up its contracts has been a reduction in pre-tax margins from 30 per cent to nearer 24.

The buoyant returns achieved in easier days were paid for by small businesses saddled with over-long, inflexible and on occasions (by the company's own admission) fraudulent contracts.

An overdue OFT investigation has accelerated a much-needed shake-up of the industry, the result of which has been a shift in pain from consumer to shareholder. Southern's shares were 140p a year ago compared with yesterday's close of 82p.

Looking ahead, the tighter regime in which Southern will operate will limit profits to perhaps pounds 13m this year, implying a prospective p/e of 8. That does not look demanding, but the regularity of nasty surprises over the past year means the sizeable discount will persist.