Independent Newspapers maintains global pace

Independent Newspapers, the Irish-based newspaper group, yesterday underscored its rapid development into an international media group with news of a 47 per cent increase in pre-tax profits for last year to Irpounds 73.5m.

Liam Healy, the chief executive, said the group was well positioned to achieve further profitable growth in the current year.

With the company's recent acquisition of Wilson & Horton in New Zealand contributing to results for a full year for the first time, some analysts are predicting that group profits could rise to as high as Irpounds 100m this year.

New Zealand is also predicted to become the company's biggest source of profits for the first time, outstripping the group's home base in Ireland.

Independent Newspapers, which owns 46.4 per cent of The Independent in Britain, seems to have done well across the board last year, confounding those critics who have challenged its strategy of international expansion.

Operating profits were up 33 per cent in Ireland, 140 per cent in the UK, 59 per cent in France, 24 per cent in South Africa, 3 per cent in Australia, and 6 per cent in New Zealand.

The group's share of losses at Newspaper Publishing, owner of The Independent and Independent on Sunday, was Irpounds 5.2m. The company said it anticipated a further substantial fall in those losses this year.

Mr Healy was keen to stress the company's dramatic transformation from a relatively small Irish newspaper group (its flagship title is the Irish Independent), to one of the largest pure newspaper groups traded on the stock market.

In the last five years profits have risen ninefold and market capitalisation has grown from Irpounds 115m to Irpounds 838m.

Independent Newspapers was buoyed in its Irish home market by a very strong economy. The advertising market in Ireland last year grew by 18 per cent and Independent Newspapers did a bit better than that. The company also benefited from softer newsprint costs.

In South Africa, performance has been boosted by the addition of new products. Business coverage has been standardised across the group's various titles leading to a big pick-up in business advertising. Weekly personal finance sections have been added.

Mr Healy believes the group's strategy of developing a "basket" of newspaper interests spread across the world is being wholly vindicated by results.

"While it might look a mixed bag, we have managed to extract value. There are common skills we can apply to all these businesses and we were very limited in our scope for expansion in Ireland."

A final dividend of 4.6p is being recommended, lifting the total for the year by 18 per cent to 6.9p. A scrip alternative is again being offered.