Punch shrugs off impact of smoking ban

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Punch Taverns, Britain's largest pubs group, has shrugged off the impact of the smoking ban in Scotland to report a strong set of annual results.

The results came as the group's chairman Phil Cox, 56, announced he would step down at the company's annual meeting in January, exactly four years after he took up the post.

The group described his decision to retire early as a lifestyle choice. Mr Cox has lived abroad for a number of years and the non-executive chairmanship was the last job he retained.

Mr Cox will be succeeded by Peter Cawdron, who has sat on Punch's board as a non-executive director since May 2003. His executive career has spanned Grand Metropolitan and SG Warburg, with non-executive positions at the catering giant Compass Group and the food manufacturer Arla.

The news came as Punch, Britain's largest pub landlord with more than 9,200 pubs, reported a doubling in sales to £1.5bn after the £2.7bn acquisition of Spirit Group at the start of the year, pushing pre-tax profits up 21 per cent to £250m.

Punch said that sales at its 493 pubs north of the border had held steady despite the smoking ban in Scotland, which was introduced in March. While acknowledging that winter was yet to come, Punch's chief executive Giles Thorley said: "The market will settle down. Some pubs will suffer more than others. But customers are very quickly appreciating non-smoking pubs." Punch reckons it is well-prepared for the nationwide smoking ban that will come into force next summer.

Mr Thorley admitted that income from machines had fallen, by 8 per cent in all managed pubs, but that drop was tempered by rising food sales. "The stereotypical bloke who plays machines and smokes isn't as prominent. But that doesn't mean he's not going [to the pub]," he said.

Punch said the process of rationalising the 1,800-strong Spirit estate was now largely complete. It has sold 389 Spirit pubs and is in the middle of converting around 700 managed pubs to lease. It hopes to complete the conversions by August next year.

Analysts at Morgan Stanley said they were encouraged by the 6 per cent growth in like-for-like sales at the Spirit pubs, but added: "Spirit is a good business trading well, but ultimately we still think the managed pubs will be sold."