Investment: No Pain, No Gain: Our Man's Portfolio - Coombs clan opens up S & U

INVESTOR RELATIONS have never been high on the agenda at money lender S&U. The company's failure to communicate adequately with its shareholders and the City - it once issued a one-line trading statement - is undoubtedly a major factor in the low rating accorded its shares.

With around only 30 per cent of its capital constituting a free market and the continuing dominance of the Coombs family it is not surprising that S&U shares, at 292.5p, yield 8.7 per cent and sell on 8.7 times last year's earnings.

Similar groups enjoy more exotic ratings. For example, Cattles sells on 27 times earnings and offers a paltry 1.7 per cent yield. But S&U appears to have got the message. Long standing shareholders were surprised by the last report and accounts and what amounted to an admission that investor relations needed improvement.

Another sign that S&U has woken up is the decision to split the top job although the Coombs name remains to the fore. Veteran Derek Coombs is the chairman with his nephew Anthony as managing director. It would appear to be the younger Coombs who is keen to give the company a higher investment profile.

There is even talk the Coombs will reduce their shareholding, thought to reach 50 per cent. Whether they are thinking of an acquisition for shares or placing stock in the stock market is not clear.

With the publicity-shy property-owning Berger family accounting for a further 20 per cent there is little for institutions to go for. Consequently, S&U, capitalised at only pounds 34m, is something of an investment outcast.

I am banking on S&U's more high-profile approach being accompanied by much stronger trading. With the tempting dividend yield and the prospect of capital appreciation the shares are an obvious addition to the no pain, no gain portfolio.

Old fashioned money-lending is not an attractive industry. But it provides a much-used and obviously needed service. S&U and its competitors do not regard themselves as money-lenders. They prefer "personal" or "consumer" credit agencies.

The Coombs empire specialises in relatively small loans to low earners and has an army of agents collecting repayments. The old tallyman business is not without risk. Loans are unsecured and customers can prove awkward.

Still in these low interest rate days interest charges are often breathtaking, providing adequate compensation.

The money lenders are also scoring from the reluctance of banks to accommodate the less reliable members of society and the improving economy. The chairman, Mr Coombs says: "Demand for credit from existing and new customers remains strong as they continue to value the convenient, quick and straightforward service in their homes." But competition is tough, and vague Government threats to clamp down on high interest charges is a negative influence.

S&U's recent profits have failed to inspire. The company has appeared to limp behind rivals such as Provident Financial and Cattles. Last year an pounds 800,000 doubtful debt provision took its toll. With the previous year's figures inflated by a property sale the pounds 5.9m produced looked decidedly sedate. In the past five years profits have been disappointing, a sharp contrast to earlier years when shares touched 456p.

They should have a chance of returning to such levels. A year's profit of, say pounds 7m, some corporate activity and more public awareness by the Coombs clan could set S&U on the path to reducing a yawning ratings gap which has opened up with its major rivals.

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