Fresh focus leads BTR to sell global packaging business for pounds 2.2b n

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The Independent Online
BTR yesterday took another big step in its attempt to refocus itself from a conglomerate to an engineering group with the sale of its global packaging business for pounds 2.2bn.

Ian Strachan, the chief executive, who reports annual results for BTR on Thursday, also unveiled a higher-than-expected pounds 2bn share buyback scheme for his hard-pressed investors. He believed the company had turned the credibility corner adding "any significant move like this begins to restore shareholder confidence".

The moves sent shares racing ahead 25.5p to 187p but City analysts said more needed to be done completely to rehabilitate a company which had issued five profit warnings in three years.

BTR won a strong price for the sale of its glass and plastic packaging business to Owens-Illinois Inc of the US. Strachan said it was double what many people had expected but others gave the credit to Goldman Sachs who arranged it.

The disposal, which should be completed in April, follows the sale of BTR's polymer division in November to a management buyout for pounds 515m.

The packaging operations include the Rockware bottling business in Britain, the ACI glass business in Australia and the Continental PET packaging operation in the US.

The worldwide packaging business, which generated pounds 250m profit to December 1996, can only be sold once relevant regulatory approval is given in the various countries.

The company intends to return its pounds 1.5bn to shareholders in the first half of this year with the remaining pounds 0.5bn expected to be handed over following the abolition of ACT in 1999. Earlier there had been speculation that BTR might may back between pounds 1bn and pounds 1.5bn to investors.

Mr Strachan said: "The proposed return of capital reflects the continued commitment to an efficient capital structure, consistent with BTR's need to have resources available for [engineering] investment."

He added that BTR was ahead with scheduled divestment programme with half of the proposed asset sales completed and the rest mainly targeted to go before the end of 1998.

An initial public offering is under consideration for the building products business in the US and Australia while the other major disposal victim is Formica, based in Cincinnati. But it has not been all disposals.

In October the company spent pounds 361m buying Exide Electronics , a US-based manufacturer of power supply systems. The move failed to boost a sagging share price.

Last December BTR warned that second half results would be hit by the strength of sterling and economic downturns in the Far East and South America. This wiped pounds 1bn off the value of its shares.

Most analysts expect Thursday's results to show pre-tax profits of a shade over the pounds 1bn mark compared with pounds 1.3bn last time.

But one said: "With BTR's record you never take anything for granted."

Most City forecasters expect a very slight deterioration in 1998 results over 1997 figures. BTR watchers say the company's management will only be treated more favourably when it not only completes its sales programme but also shows that it can run a going concern at a premium.

Outlook, page 21