Strong sales strengthen Wickes defence against Focus bid

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The Independent Online

Wickes, the do-it-yourself retailer, revealed strong sales growth for the first quarter of this year as part of its defence strategy to fend off a hostile bid from rival Focus Do It All.

Wickes issued a trading statement yesterday that revealed an 8.6 per cent increase in sales for the five-week period to 6 May, compared with the equivalent Easter and May Bank holiday weeks last year. Sales for the 19 weeks to 13 May were up by 4.8 per cent on a like-for-like basis.

Wickes said that sales were up by 18 per cent in the 28 stores across the country that were refurbished to make them more woman-friendly, with prominence given to kitchens and bathrooms.

Including these stores, sales were up by 12.2 per cent for the five weeks to 6 May and 8.5 per cent for the 19 weeks to 13 May.

Bill Grimsey, chief executive of Wickes, said: "The refurbishment cost £20m, but we are very pleased with the result. We will spend a further £22m to renew 30 stores this year and will work on a further 30 stores next year."

Wickes had £14m in the bank at the end of 1999, but it is committed to an overall refurbishment and openings programme that will cost £150m.

The statement yesterday followed an appeal to Wickes shareholders not to succumb to the 375p-a-share offer from Focus Do It All (FDIA).

Wickes pledged to return £74m, equivalent to £1 a share, to shareholders if they vote to keep the company independent. The buy-back would shrink Wickes' share capital by 25 per cent.

Wickes' final defence document, sent to shareholders over the weekend, estimates that profits before tax and interest will jump 33 per cent to £28.5m in the year to December.

Mr Grimsey said: "Unless FDIA increase their bid, I am convinced shareholders will stick with Wickes."

Focus has until next Sunday to decide whether it will raise its bid. It is widely expected to do so, although analysts believe it could have to go to at least 500p to secure Wickes.

Mr Grimsey said he was encouraged by cement-maker Blue Circle's escape from Lafarge, which showed investors would not accept low offers for Old Economy companies.