No instant gratification, but the Williams outlook is good

The Investment Column
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The Independent Online
Williams, once known as a conglomerate, has worked hard to reinvent itself as the wind of stock market fashion has turned against its old sector. The group has dropped motor dealing, engineering, electronics and a large chunk of its building products business, turning very handy profits for shareholders in the process.

Meanwhile, April's pounds 1.3bn acquisition of Chubb has given tangible backing to the claims by Williams' chairman, Sir Nigel Rudd, that he is now determined to focus on security and fire protection. Earlier this month, these efforts resulted in Williams finally being reclassified as a support services company. And the transformation was crowned yesterday by the announcement that its membership of the FTSE 100 index has been restored.

Despite this tour de force, the recent run in the shares has been driven more by hopes that the group would accompany its interim announcement yesterday with news of further disposals and a share buy-back. The lack of instant gratification on either score sent the shares down 15.5p to 359p, even though it is clear that moves are afoot.

Authority for a share buy-back will be put to shareholders later this year, while a sale of the Polyfilla to US decorative paints home improvements division was not being ruled either in or out by Sir Nigel yesterday. Analysts are suggesting that Nutone, a US electrical goods installer, could go whatever happens, although forecasts that the whole division could eventually fetch as much as pounds 900m may prove optimistic.

Corporate moves aside, the Chubb integration appears to be, if anything, running ahead of expectations. Cost savings, which have seen 300 jobs go so far, and the benefits of shoving more of Chubb's products through Williams' existing Yale and Kidde distribution networks are on course to hit the target of adding pounds 40m to profits by the end of next year.

Longer term, there should be more to go for, with Chubb's strong positions in the fast growing security and fire protection markets of the Far East and Australia complementing Yale and Kidde in the Americas and Europe. Williams has yet to prove it can capitalise on these possibilities though.

Stripping out acquisitions and exchange effects, underlying profits growth of 5 per cent in fire protection and 6 per cent in security was eclipsed by the supposedly non-core home improvement operation, which recorded a sparkling 13 per cent advance.

The market outlook is good, but the group's warning that the removal of advance corporation tax credits will cost an extra pounds 9m a year in extra pension fund contributions caused full-year forecasts to be shaved a little yesterday. Still, assuming profits of pounds 280m, the shares, on a forward multiple of 16, falling to 14, look reasonable value, particularly against rivals in Sweden and the US on p/e ratios in the 30s.