Outlook: Booker/Budgens

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The Independent Online
TO BE JILTED once at the altar is bad enough, but to be abandoned twice within three weeks is a desperate plight. Such is the fate of Booker, the cash and carry operator that no one seems to want. As its own chairman forlornly remarks: "How ugly can one be?"

Pretty damn hideous in this case, it seems. This can be the only conclusion after first Somerfield and now Budgens have decided that, even if Booker is the only girl left on the dance floor, they would rather go home alone. Though Booker denies it, the suspicion remains that the due diligence process must have uncovered something pretty unpleasant.

On the other hand, a reverse takeover of Booker by Budgens made even less sense than the mooted tie-up with Somerfield. That the shares slumped again yesterday after the talks were abandoned might therefore seem perverse.

With Booker stock now down to a 14-year low we may not have seen the last of the Booker bids. Up until now financial buyers have largely steered clear, since they would be unable to achieve the same synergies as a trade buyer.

But the figures now look more tempting. Booker has a market value of just pounds 290m, but enjoys sales of more than pounds 5bn. Even stripping out the food businesses earmarked for sale, that still leaves cash and carry sales of pounds 3.5bn. This is low-margin turnover, admittedly, but by the same token that means all the more room for improvement.

What is clear is that the board needs to move with speed to find a chief executive capable of getting a grip; it's been without one for nearly six months now, which must be at least a part of the problem.