Investment Column: Bananas ripen for Fyffes

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The Independent Online
AFTER a lean couple of years, bananas have started to bear fruit for Fyffes. The Irish fresh food group, which distributes two of every five bananas sold in the UK, benefited from firmer prices across the European Union and reported a 15 per cent rise in interim pre-tax profits to IRpounds 23m.

The company managed to capitalise on its market-leading position in the UK, where the Fyffes name is to bananas what Hoover used to be for vacuum cleaners.

Everything seems to be going Fyffes' way. With banana and other fruit prices expected to remain stable and perhaps creep higher in the near future, the outlook is brighter than ever.

Moreover, the acquisition of a number of small businesses across Europe, which last year had a combined turnover of around IRpounds 35m and profits of IRpounds 800,000, should boost profits this year and next.

Looking ahead, Fyffes looks set to increase its share of the highly-regulated EU food market by pursuing acquisitions, helped by IRpounds 59m of cash on its balance sheet.

Deputy chairman Carl McCann says Fyffes is looking at small businesses in a number of EU countries but is also keen to go for a large deal, similar to last year's purchase of the Geest banana division.

Sceptics note that fresh food is a cyclical business and warn that Fyffes could take a battering when prices slump. They also argue that the shares have had a breathtaking run in the past nine months, rising to a high of 183p last month from 81p in August last year. They were unchanged at 158p yesterday.

But with analysts upgrading full-year profit forecasts to IRpounds 59m yesterday, the shares - on a multiple of around 15 times prospective earnings - are still cheaper than competitors such as Del Monte and Dole. Buy.