Market Report: First Leisure Corporation looks to tap into pubs

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The Independent Online
First Leisure Corporation, the bingo and disco group run by John Conlan, wants to move back into the pubs trade.

It has emerged that it was one of the unsuccessful bidders for The Magic Pub Co, the chain created by Michael Cannon and sold a fortnight ago to East Anglian brewer Greene King for pounds 197.5m.

When it produced its interim figures last month, FLC was in an upbeat mood, announcing a big expansion of its core operations, creating 1,400 jobs.

A move into pubs would represent its second bar room challenge. In the 1980's it acquired a pubs chain but found pulling pints did not blend with running bowling allies and discos and beat a hasty retreat.

Mr Conlan's somersault has no doubt been prompted by the soaraway success of such groups as Regent Inns and JD Wetherspoon.

The renewed taste for pubs could prompt a bid for one of the quoted pub chains or one of the groups which must be sold or float on the stock market to satisfy their venture capitalist backers.

But FLC is not thought to be in the running for Pubmaster, the near 1,700 strong pubs chain which stricken leisure group Brent Walker wants to sell.

Former Pubmaster chairman, John Brackenbury, with the backing of NatWest Ventures, is in the frame and there is a suspicion interests related to Nomura, the Japanese securities house which is already involved in one pubs chain, is in serious contention. A regional brewer may also hover. Enterprise Inns, buying the John Labatt chain, looked at Pubmaster but walked away.

Brent Walker, struggling to reduce a pounds 1.4bn debt mountain, had planned to float Pubmaster but now seems resigned to a trade sale. Its other arm, the William Hill betting shops, is unlikely to be sold until next year.

It could expect around pounds 700m for William Hill and is looking for pounds 180m for Pubmaster. Even if it gets such an cash inflow it will still be swamped by debts. Brent Walker firmed 0.5p to 3p - some would say they are 3p overpriced - and FLC edged ahead 1p to 364p.

The rest of the market continued to turn against Hanson, once the darling of the conglomerates with its shares approaching 300p.

The four-way demerger, aimed at restoring its market image, has hastened the fall from grace. It was the heaviest traded blue chip with the price falling 2.25p to 169p, a seven year low.

This week's Hanson presentation has prompted analysts to cut their break up valuations and there are signs that funds with relatively small holdings are selling rather than carry the administrative problem of contending with four even smaller stakes.

BTR remained depressed but Tomkins continued to demonstrate that among the conglomerate wreckage it still has appeal, gaining 7p to 265p.

The rest of the market edged ahead in the summer sunshine although trading was far from inspired, despite talk of an interest rate cut. Most investors seemed content to sit on the sidelights.

BSkyB ended 5p higher at 473p after hitting 482p. The possibility of Kirch, the German media group, taking a stake as part of the digital TV deal created the excitement.

GKN jumped 28p to 1,033p on Merrill Lynch support and investment meetings pushed Kingfisher 6p higher to 641p. Bernard Matthews edged 3.5p higher to 105p on lower corn prices.

East Midland Electricity, the latest utility bid hot shot, gained 15p (after 28p) to 570p on ABN Amro Hoare Govett support and talk of a US strike.

Northern Leisure, the nightclub group, held at 127p as the Fairfax family of Australia cut its stake from 9.2 per cent to 5.8 per cent, selling shares at 122p.

Rhino, the computer games retailer, gained 1p to 17.5p following investment meetings but BGT suffered a sharp reverse, off 85p at 1,810p.

Biotech shares were generally steadier with Proteus up 7p at 72p but its associate, ML Laboratories was off 25p at 399p.

Intelligent Environments improved 10p to 85p following a marketing and servicing pact with Netscape Communications, the US group. Dana, the oil group with interests in Russia, gained 1p to 13.5p, almost double the March price.

Bula Resources, held at 2.75p after placing 148m shares at 2.75p to provide cash for its Salymskoye oil field in Siberia. It now has more than 1.6bn shares in issue.

Reflec, a reflective inks supplier, jumped 37p to 135p following a five-year marketing deal with BASF, the German group.