Far East turmoil prompts fresh BTR profits warning

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The Independent Online
BTR yesterday issued its third profit warning in two years, plunging shares in the troubled conglomerate to a six-year low. Despite their frustration, Peter Thal Larsen finds shareholders have little choice but to support the chief executive Ian Strachan's attempts to turn the group around.

In a trading statement, BTR said it expected second-half profits to be "more or less in line with the restated first half results". That's in contrast with the upbeat outlook the group gave in September, when Mr Strachan said he expected BTR "to show improvement in the second half of this year over the first half".

The stock market reacted viciously, pushing BTR shares down 25.5p to 182.5p as analysts slashed their profit forecasts for the year to December by as much as 10 per cent. Profits are now expected to come in at about pounds 1.06bn.

BTR shares have lost almost half of their value since Mr Strachan took over as chief executive in January 1996, underperforming the FTSE 100 index by 60 per cent.

Industry experts reacted to the news with an air of resignation. "People are just punch-drunk with BTR," said one observer. "They are totally fed up with it."

BTR blamed the profits disappointment on the economic turmoil in Asia and South America and the renewed strength of sterling. The group, which has pounds 900 million of annual sales in emerging markets and is highly exposed to the automotive industry, has been particularly hit by rising interest rates in Brazil. "Auto sales were down 60 per cent in November," Mr Strachan said.

Meanwhile, BTR said the rise of sterling would also affect full-year figures. The group now estimates that currency movements will wipe pounds 75m off its profits, compared to an earlier estimate of pounds 63m. Mr Strachan said the strong pound was also hurting subsidiaries with substantial exports like Brook-Hansen, its electric motors unit. "Currency hits you both ways - in the export market and in import substitution," said Mr Strachan.

Despite the gloom, few observers felt there was any option but to back the management's attempts to concentrate on its main engineering businesses. "It's difficult to see how you could engineer another major rethink," said an analyst. "The BTR team had better stick to their task."

Since Mr Strachan took over, he has implemented a strategy of slimming BTR down to a core of engineering businesses. The group has largely completed the first phase of the disposal program, selling businesses with annual turnover of pounds 2.3bn, and last month sold its polymeric products division to a management buyout team for pounds 515m. It is currently negotiating the sale of its packaging division, which is expected to raise pounds 3bn, and a clutch of smaller subsidiaries. The group hopes to complete the sales next year. "We've had tremendous interest in all of those businesses," Mr Strachan said.

Mr Strachan said the proceeds would be re-invested in the four core engineering divisions: automotive; control systems; power drives; and specialist engineering. He also said the group would return a "significant proportion" of the cash to shareholders.