Brent Walker debates future of William Hill

Brent Walker, the debt-laden leisure group, is still considering whether to sell its William Hill betting business after reporting a group profit of pounds 50.6m before tax and interest charges in 1996 compared with a loss of pounds 414.5m the previous year.

William Hill has 1,700 betting shops and could be worth pounds 500m. Its turnover rose 6.2 per cent last year while profits rose by 30 per cent to pounds 50.3m. Trading since the beginning of the current year had been encouraging, Sir Brian Goswell, chairman, said yesterday. The introduction of fruit machines and numbers betting had made a significant contribution but the betting services industry remained volatile, he said.

The options open to Brent Walker include floating William Hill on the market, reversing it into a shell company, finding a merger partner or looking for a trade sale. Bass, the breweries and hotels group that owns the Coral chain with 930 betting shops in the UK, is widely regarded as a potential buyer.

Group turnover at Brent Walker rose by 4 per cent to pounds 1.73bn last year, on which the company made a profit of pounds 216.5m before interest and tax. The results were helped by the sale of its Pubmaster chain of public houses for pounds 171m last November and by settling thedispute over the value of the William Hill betting business it bought from Grand Metropolitan, the giant food and drinks group, in 1989.

Brent Walker received a net payment of pounds 36m from the settlement with Grand Met. However, the dispute with Brent Walker's former chairman, George Walker, over the sale of its French vineyard in 1989 cost the group pounds 3.28m.

Brent Walker still has debts of pounds 1.5bn and interest charges cost pounds 165.9m last year. The company's loan agreements with its bankers run out at the end of this year and the company must sell its remaining asset or renegotiate its debts. If it decides to retain William Hill, this would require the banks agreeing to extend the current facilities, Sir Brian said.

The shares rose 0.75p yesterday to 2p.