Outlook: Centrica

THE UGLY duckling has finally emerged as a swan, or, to be more accurate, a golden goose laying a big fat pounds 530m egg. When British Gas was demerged two years ago, giving birth to separate transportation and supply companies, Centrica was very much the runt of the litter.

With complaints at an all-time high and customers deserting in droves, Centrica looked destined for a short and unpleasant life. To boot it was saddled with pounds 30bn worth of ruinous take-or-pay contracts, signed in an era when British Gas thought its domestic monopoly would never end.

The contracts had the capacity to sink the company, which is why the prospectus was accompanied by a large health warning from the BG chairman, Sir Dick Giordano, advising all Sids to abandon ship. Just over 300,000 of them did. But a further 1.3 million hung on. Yesterday they were duly rewarded with the announcement of the company's first ever dividend.

Customers too are feeling more positive. When Centrica demerged it insisted on retaining the rights to the British Gas name. At the time this looked like a sick joke, not a prized asset. Today Centrica is turning the tables on the competition. Having given up a quarter of its market share, customers have started to return.

Now Centrica is preparing to leverage that customer base - still nearly 16 million households - to sell the world everything from car breakdown and insurance services to mortgages and home shopping. One day not too far distant, providing financial services may be a bigger business than repairing boilers. The turnaround is an astonishing one, and a real credit to the dynamo in charge, Roy Gardner.

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