Investment: Hays shrugs off the threat of recession

BRITAIN MAY be in danger of talking itself into recession, but speak to Sir Ronnie Frost, chief executive of Hays, the logistics and commercial services group, and a far more optimistic view emerges. His view is that there is no danger of recession and that Hays' figures do not even hint at a slowdown.

In any event, he says, Hays does well in a slump, becausebusinesses are encouraged to contract out services. Two of Hays' businesses, distribution and commercial services such as document handling, tend to benefit from a slowdown with only the personnel division an obvious hostage to the economic cycle. But even personnel, which supplies technical staff such as accountants and civil engineers, enjoyed a record August.

Hays has weathered the market storms well so far. The shares are some way off their peak despite yesterday' s 67p bounce to 882p but have still outperformed the market by 30 per cent over the past 12 months.

Full-year profits were up by 30 per cent to pounds 201m before exceptional items and each of the three main divisions enjoyed good organic growth. Distribution profits rose by 23 per cent, commercial by 24 per cent and personnel by 41 per cent. There was a pounds 4m charge for the reorganisation of acquired businesses while pounds 216m was spent on deals and capital expenditure during the year.

The UK is still Hays' biggest market and the distribution business has recently targeted petrol retailers and signed deals with Shell and BP to supply their forecourt retailing operations.

But Europe is the key to growth and will probably be the focus of acquisitions. Two-thirds of the logistics revenue already comes from the Continent and the commercial business will be built up in markets such as France and Germany. Hays is also in talks over a personnel acquisition in Europe to add to the French recruitment firm Alpha TT, acquired earlier this year.

On full-year forecasts of pounds 230m, the shares trade on a forward rating of 23. A deserved premium to the market but not more than a hold at those levels.

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