Not exactly what the Keswicks had in mind

COMMENT: 'The danger is that the continuing cash haemorrhage (another pounds 100m will slip away this year) will necessitate the sale of the remainin g jewels - even Cunard is only being fattened up for market'
Click to follow
The Independent Online
It has been quite a month for kitchen sink accounting, the well- worn management technique of blaming it all on the previous regime, lobbing in a barrowload of provisions and hoping to hell that you've done enough to create a solid floor for earnings growth. The extent of restructuring provisions at NFC and Laporte surprised the market, but nothing could have prepared it for the bombshell which Trafalgar House dropped yesterday.

Arguably when the market is expecting you to lose pounds 200m, another pounds 120m is neither here nor there, so it was little surprise that the shares, an unqualified disaster over the past 10 years or so, slipped just 2p to 24.5p. More of a weary shrug than the outrage that might have been expected.

Even so, the picture Nigel Rich paints of the company he inherited as chief executive 15 months ago is an extremely worrying one. There appears to have been a complete absence of communication between the centre and the provinces and an unwillingness to co-operate when head-office wallahs descended from on high to disturb the glorious isolation which the subsidiaries had previously enjoyed.

The Davy and Sofresid acquisitions in the early 1990s were left, it appears, to run themselves with no attempt being made to integrate the new operations in the group as a whole or to instil any new disciplines or reporting systems. Hardly any wonder, cynics note, when there weren't any to pass on in the first place.

What Mr Rich is faced with at Trafs is a group in complete disarray, rightly named Britain's worst-managed company in a recent business magazine poll.

His problem is that changing a whole corporate culture is difficult enough at the best of times. Changing it at the worst of times, when markets are dire, cash-flow weak, borrowings high, morale low and shareholders restive, becomes infinitely more so.

In that regard he does have the advantage of an investor register so pummelled with bad news over the past three years, so weakened by dipping deep for rights issue funds to flush down the drain, that in terms of sentiment things can only get better. Even Hongkong Land, which has paid more for a quarter of the company than the whole is now worth, issued a grudging vote of support yesterday.

There are some good businesses in the group, notably Ideal Homes, the housebuilder. The danger is that the continuing cash haemorrhage (another pounds 100m will slip away this year) will necessitate the sale of the remaining jewels. Even Cunard is only being fattened up for market.

That will leave nothing but a collection of dull, low-margin engineering and construction businesses, struggling in highly competitive markets. Not exactly what the Keswicks had in mind.

Sky's the limit in TV shake-up

There are two obvious winners in the Government's freshly-revised Broadcasting Bill - the shareholders of small ITV companies and Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB.

The market immediately recognised the identity of the first group of winners, sending the prices of small players such as Grampian, Scottish and HTV soaring. Even Yorkshire-Tyne Tees, already the target of bid speculation, won additional favour among investors. That BSkyB was given a green light was less immediately grasped; indeed, the shares lost 10p yesterday.

First to the ITV companies. The Government has decided to scrap the old two-licence limit in favour of a far more generous limit of 15 per cent of the total television audience. That gives even giant Carlton, which has the London weekday and Central franchises, room to grow. Indeed, it is just about possible for Carlton to take on MAI, which in turn controls the Meridian and Anglian Television licences. With such a generous ceiling, the whole of the ITV sector could be consolidated into just three groups: mix and match as you like. More over, the liberalised rules on media cross- ownership, first unveiled in the form of a White Paper earlier this year, will allow all but the biggest national newspaper groups to buy terrestrial broadcasters - limited, again, to 15 per cent of the total television audience. At the same time, broadcasters will be able to buy national newspapers (if any want to), if they don't exceed 20 per cent of the national market.

For ITV companies, at any rate, there will be plenty of potential buyers, and big mixed-media companies are bound to emerge. That is no doubt a good thing. After all, the commercial television market in the UK as at stands is too fragmented to allow real "national champions" to develop. Now there is every chance of creating much stronger companies.

So much for the past - traditional TV. What about the future? The Government apparently believes that its liberal stance on digital terrestrial TV, along with its promise to award licences to those who contract to roll out their digital services quickly, is enough to ensure its success. In fact, the only thing that will power digital TV is programming - sport and movies above all. Why would consumers pay extra for a black box if they don't get something new?

Here's the rub. All the good programming is already tied up - by BSkyB. Moreover, Sky plans to offer digital satellite within a year, and up to 200 channels of it at that, enough to plaster sports, children's programming, films, drama, US sitcoms and pay-per-view boxing matches across the screen 24 hours a day. Unbelievably, it will also be able to bid as both operator and provider for a signficant share of total DTT services. Can others compete against this onslaught? It is hard to see how, other than as niche players.

Regulator mops BT's bloody nose

What the regulator gives with one hand, he takes away with the other. Don Cruickshank's decision to begin the next stage of liberalisation in BT's tariff structure came the day after he gave the company a bloody nose on number portability. A coincidence, no doubt, but perhaps the telecoms regulator was feeling magnanimous for a change. Portability takes away some of BT's monopoly strength by removing a serious obstacle to signing up with a competitor. Abandoning the cap on rental will allow BT to fight back against the encroachment of cable by offering a menu of different charging structures - free local calls, perhaps, in exchange for a high fixed charge. Such flexibility will help BT to slow its loss of customers - and it may even bring some back.