Outlook: Tomkins poser

IS GREG HUTCHINGS' guns-to-buns conglomerate, Tomkins, about to lose its buns? Speculation is rife that under pressure from the City, Mr Hutchings is about to demerge or sell Rank Hovis McDougall, a company he bought only six years ago. Nothing has yet been decided and there are said to be a number of obstacles to such a move, but he will certainly have to say something on the matter when the company announces fully year results on 12 July.

Tomkins is a well-managed, conservatively financed company that has delivered consistent earnings and dividend growth. But it doesn't seem to make any difference. Conglomerates are unfashionable, and so are most of the businesses Tomkins is in. Arguing that one day his time will come again, Mr Hutchings stoically continues to keep the conglomerate faith, even as all about him lose theirs. Meanwhile, his share price tells a different story.

For years Mr Hutchings resisted the City fashion for share buybacks, until even he was forced to admit that his own shares were a better use of capital than anything else that was on offer. Now it looks likely he'll have to join the "demerge and focus" herd too. Under the Tomkins umbrella, Rank Hovis has done remarkably well, almost doubling its operating profits and raising its margins by nearly a half. If floated separately, it might be worth anything up to pounds 1.8bn, or nearly two-thirds of Tomkins' depressed market value as it now stands.

There's a lot of ego tied up in this for Mr Hutchings - dismantling the conglomerate he so painfully built - but on the face of it the decision is a no brainer. It might also provide a solution to the problem of what to do with Ian Duncan, his deputy. Mr Duncan wants Mr Hutchings' job. They both might feel better if separated.

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