Investment Column: Fisher casts net far - and wide

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The Independent Online
Stephen Walls, chairman of Albert Fisher, says he is ready to contemplate giving up his executive duties at the fruit to frozen veg group later this year. If he does, he could do worse than go into politics, judging by yesterday's performance.

Fisher unveiled a swing back to profits of pounds 19.1m in the six months to February, up from a deficit of pounds 24m last time, depressed by pounds 42.8m of exceptional losses at the tail-end of Mr Walls' four-year disposal programme. But stripping that out, the marginal pounds 300,000 rise in underlying profits to pounds 19.1m owed everything to a turnround in US distribution operations, now sold, and a pounds 1m cut in the interest charge. Profits from continuing operations slumped from pounds 24.1m to pounds 20.8m.

Mr Walls characterised the figures as a good half-year. Dumping 60 per cent of the business over the past four years had ended the days when Fisher could be knocked off course by one, weather-related event. The quality of earnings was now much improved, he claimed.

Yet the performance of the remaining businesses bears all the hallmarks of the Fisher of old. Seafood profits, down from pounds 8.4m to pounds 7.1m, sustained a hit of more than pounds 2m as a result of the disastrous Dutch cockle harvest, when the sea froze over. The sauces to frozen vegetable processing division slumped to pounds 6.8m from pounds 9.3m in the previous period, when the results were inflated by pounds 2m or so of "windfall" frozen food profits as a result of a shortage of fresh vegetables in 1995. Fisher also suffered a pounds 1.4m hit from exchange rates.

Neil England, the man from Mars who took over as Fisher's chief executive in November, has a wall of negative sentiment to climb in the City, but he was making the right noises. Cutting out underperforming lines, investing in cheaper, more efficient production and focusing on Fisher's strengths sound deeply sensible.

The group could clearly make more use of its European market-leading positions in areas such as citrus fruits, shellfish, frozen vegetables and sauces and dressings. Only the food processing division is (just) making Fisher's fairly undemanding margin targets, which range from 3 to 6 per cent.

Mr England remains constrained by the group's high gearing and high payout policy, but profits of pounds 43.5m would put the shares, down 0.25p at 42.5p, on a forward multiple of under 10. With a yield of 11 per cent, they are still worth holding.