Investment: High spirits at Allied Domecq look short-lived

IT'S A measure of Allied Domecq's fall from grace that appointing a new finance director is enough to give its shares a lift.

That's the only explanation anyone could give for the euphoric way in which the market yesterday received Allied's humdrum full-year results.

The Ballantines to Baskin Robbins group has trailed the market by more than 20 per cent since Guinness and Grand Met tied the knot two years ago, and shareholders are getting fed up of waiting for it to do something similar.

This is a tad unfair on Sir Christopher Hogg, Allied's chairman, whose quest for consolidation has been hampered by the reluctance of potential partners, such as Seagram, to play ball.

Still, if new finance chief Philip Bowman, who is also the new chairman at Liberty and has a reputation for getting things done, can pull off some kind of deal he will have more than earned his salary.

Yesterday's results underlined Allied's need for substantial cost savings to boost its bottom line.

In a market where its main rival was distracted by a mega-merger, Allied's spirits division produced volume growth of just 4 per cent. Sales of Ballantines, its key brand, were flat.

On the retail side, sales and profits were little changed, and the outlook is far from buoyant.

High street pub chains are reaching saturation level, so Allied is scaling back expansion of its Firkin brand.

A few new concepts, such as late-night Latin American bars, are being developed but they are still in their infancy.

Brokers now predict that profits this year will be flat at pounds 615m putting the shares, up 49p to 520p yesterday, on a forward earnings multiple of 12.

That's a 25 per cent discount to Diageo. But unless Allied can pull off a kind of a deal the gap will not narrow. Avoid.

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