Investment column: Northern Foods

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The Independent Online
NORTHERN FOODS, the Eden Vale and Fox's biscuits group, supplies 70 per cent of its output to just five major supermarket customers. That means it hasn't escaped the margin squeeze of the grocer wars. But shorn of the Express Dairies business, which was demerged last year, Northern is less exposed than some rivals to the commodity end of the food chain. Instead, it specialises in ready-meals and other convenience food ranges for the supermarket majors.

Northern's results yesterday were as exciting as a stale digestive, however. Underlying half-year profits rose 2.2 per cent to pounds 41.1m. This was after a pounds 10m exceptional charge relating to the restructuring of the group's pizza, bread and quiche operations.

The most encouraging sign is the gradual improvement in the sales line. Retail sales were up by just 0.5 per cent in the first quarter but by 3.5 per cent in the second. This has continued over the last five weeks, during which sales are up 5 per cent.

Sales to Northern's top five customers are up, including sales to Marks & Spencer, the troubled retailer which accounts for a third of group sales. Northern has invested heavily in top quality plant so margins are safer than those of rivals in the commodity sector.

On house broker ABN Amro's full-year profit forecast of pounds 101m the shares, down a penny at 99p yesterday, trade on a forward multiple of 8. That's a discount to rival Geest and the yield of over 7 per cent makes the shares a solid hold.

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