PizzaExpress sizzles as takeover rumours linger

MARKET REPORT

PizzaExpress had the stock market in a rare old pickle. In hectic trading the shares were at one time showing a 110p gain to a peak of 820.5p. They ended 57p higher at 767.5p, pricing the pizza chain at more than pounds 500m.

Stories of US buying - and inevitably a possible takeover bid - inspired the sizzling display. But David Page, chief executive, dismissed bid talk.

"I have received no bid approach in the last 10 years and no bid approach in the last 24 hours," he said.

Takeover chatter, however, lingered. Grand Metropolitan and Whitbread led the list of predatory candidates. Assorted US groups were also in the frame.

Buy circulars have, without doubt, helped create fresh enthusiasm for the shares. Credit Lyonnais Laing last week forecast profits of pounds 15.2m for the year ending in June, with pounds 23m in the following year. Profits last year were pounds 10.2m.

US investors have been keen on the shares for some time. Janus Capital Corporation, the investment group which has acquired such a taste for the JD Wetherspoon pub chain, had at the last count 18.07 per cent of the capital and is thought to remain a keen buyer.

PizzaExpress, with more than 150 pizza restaurants and a food and drink importing arm, is one of the share success stories of the 1990s.

It arrived via a reverse takeover of a struggling computer group four years ago. Then the price was around 20p.

The rest of the market at least managed to settle down after Thursday's ragged retreat, although it retained the dubious distinction of so far falling on each day of the election campaign.

Footsie, at one time up 15.8 points, ended 3.3 lower at 4,254.8 in, once again, active trading with turnover, swollen by bed and breakfast deals, topping 1 billion shares.

BAT Industries ignored the Liggett lawsuit capitulation, recovering a 22.5p fall to close 5p higher at 494p. Imperial Tobacco settled 2p lower at 419.5p. Goldman Sachs regards BAT as a strong buy.

Other blue chips active included Commercial Union, up 19p at 660p on a resurgence of takeover talk, and United News & Media, 21p higher at 753.5p, probably on dividend buying.

Tesco's Irish adventure left the shares little changed at 339.5p. Associated British Foods, collecting pounds 640m for its Irish retail operations, added 14.5p to 526p.

Howden, the engineer which denied any takeover approach on Monday, jumped 36.5p to 128p as Charter, which has made no secret of takeover ambitions, launched an agreed cash and share offer. Charter fell 40p to 847.5p.

Phoenix Timber was another in the takeover arena, gaining 2.5p to 22.5p as the Co-operative Retirement Benefit Fund offered 23p for the 22.5 per cent not already owned.

The drug sector had a volatile session. Scotia, following its failure to obtain approval for its diabetic treatment, suffered a 27.5p fall to 380p. Others lower included Celltech (29.5p to 580p) and Biocompatibles International (77.5p to 1,175p). Shield Diagnostic ended an eventful week with a 30p gain to 650p. Its eagerly awaited presentation takes place on Monday.

It was, as far as the day's two newcomers were concerned, a game of two halves. Charlton Athletic, the football club, scored an own goal. At one time its shares were down at 56.5p from an 80p placing. They closed at 63p. Q Group, interactive educational publishers, moved from a 114p placing to 119.5p.

Prism Rail, the franchise rail operator, picked up steam after a dull run, gaining 55p to 350p. The shares have come down from 580p and the company wonders whether the South West Trains fiasco has been a factor.

None of SWT's problems have impacted on Prism. "Indeed Prism is currently a significant net beneficiary under the performance regimes in place and expects to remain so." Stagecoach, owner of SWT, staged a modest rally, up 7.5p to 679p.

Flextech, the broadcaster, fell 44p to 635p as Goldman placed 9.3 million shares at 634.5p.

Trace Computers held at 68.5p as MMT Computing moved its stake to 7.12 per cent but Active Imaging crashed 42p to 46.5p as TVX, a US group, dropped bid plans.

CPL Aromas was another casualty, falling 70p to 120p. The fragrance maker warned profits would not reach the market's hopes.

Netcall, a computer telephony group, rose 4p to 74.5p. The shares were 60.5p on Monday when it produced an upbeat trading statement.

Taking Stock

r Expect Enterprise Inns to roll out a bid for Discovery Inns, the start-up chain which abandoned plans to float in December, next week. To finance the deal Enterprise is said to be making a one-for-two rights issue at around 200p.

The takeover, valuing Discovery at pounds 50m, is likely to be earnings-enhancing by 6 per cent this year and 20 per cent next. Enterprise, little changed at 248.5p, lifted its pubs chain to 900 last year when it acquired John Labatt's retail interests. Discovery has around 275 outlets.

r Photobition, offering printing services to the exhibition industry, slipped 5p to 426.5p. Merrill Lynch expects the company's profits to improve from pounds 2.9m to pounds 4.1m this year and reach pounds 5.8m next.

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