Ratners rules out plan to dispose of US arm

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JAMES McADAM, the chairman of Ratners, yesterday ruled out a disposal of the jewellery retailer's US operation, as it emerged that the group is heading for a bottom- line loss of pounds 50m this year.

Mr McAdam reported plunging UK sales in the crucial Christmas trading period but an encouraging pick-up in operating profits.

He said there were no plans to sell the profitable American arm, which analysts believe could fetch more than pounds 240m. 'We're looking at getting the group as a whole back to profitability.'

December sales in the UK stores, which include H Samuel and Ernest Jones, plunged 27 per cent. But operating profits rose 20 per cent as Ratners held to its new strategy of preserving margins.

Ratners said the comparison with last year was not meaningful because of the policy of heavy discounting in operation then.

The sales collapse was even sharper in the tarnished Ratners chain, which is still struggling to shrug off the notorious 'crap' remark by Gerald Ratner, the former chief executive.

Sales were comparatively slow in early December, but produced a strong burst in the final Christmas week, a pattern also experienced by other retailers.

Sales for the first 11 months were down 18 per cent. Mr McAdam warned that losses before tax and exceptional items for the year to 30 January would be about the same as last year - pounds 24m.

He said there would probably be further exceptional items as Ratners considers further cuts on top of the 180 store closures announced last year. The extra cost could come to pounds 20m- pounds 25m, making a bottom-line loss of about pounds 50m, compared with a pounds 122m deficit last time.

Year-end debt is expected to be pounds 250m, about pounds 25m more than 12 months ago. Ratners also owes about pounds 50m in rolled-up interest on its preference shares.

Ratners has operated within its loan covenants since the refinancing of last August. The debt position needs to be renegotiated this June. In the full year Ratners will have cut annual costs by pounds 50m and inventories by pounds 60m.

'The new direction set for the group has been validated by the 1992 performance, particularly in December,' Mr McAdam said. Mr Ratner is said to have argued for deeper price cuts before his departure in November.