Little shine at Salvesen

The Investment Column

After six years of restructuring Christian Salvesen, chief executive Dr Chris Masters would have hoped to be a lot further along than this. A raft of businesses have been sold, including everything from brick- making to pollution-control equipment. What remains is the distribution business, the Aggreko power generation and temperature control division and food services. The latter, which processes frozen vegetables, is deemed non-core but is profitable and there are no plans to sell it.

Salveson may be lean and mean compared to what it was but the shares have not responded. After reaching nearly 400p in early 1993, they plunged in 1994 after Aggreko ran into problems in the US. Since then they have gone precisely nowhere as the company wrestled with Aggreko and the logistics business hit a rough patch.

A continuing problem is the company's exposure to the supermarket groups, which have been hammering supplier margins.

Pre-tax profits for the year to March fell from pounds 111m to pounds 87m, although the previous year's figures were inflated by exceptionals. Group operating profits edged up to pounds 80m but profits in European logistics fell due to "severe pressure" in the food markets in Germany and the UK where Salvesen supplies most of the big supermarkets.

The company is trying to reduce its dependency on the grocery sector although it still accounts for 31 per cent of the division's profits. It has been introducing more flexible working practices and investing heavily in new technology. Profits were hit by a pounds 1.5m charge to cover redundancy costs associated with the shift to seven-day working required to fit in with retailers' Sunday trading.

Germany was even more of a problem where the de-regulation of the transport industry increased competition and pushed Salvesen's division into a pounds 2m loss. No improvement is expected in the short term.

With costs reducing and the supermarket groups showing more willingness to work with suppliers, there are signs that the worst is over. Elsewhere, the Aggreko business had a good year, pushing up profits by a heady 19.5 per cent to pounds 30.7m.

For all this, there are signs that Salvesen may be about to lift itself off the bottom as improvements in its logistics division start to reap dividends. Henderson Crosthwaite has increased its profits forecast to pounds 81m. With the shares unchanged at 243p and on a forward rating of 13 there are some attractions. But not one to over-excite. Hold.

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