Shares: Tomkins looks set for a pounds 1bn sell-off to appease City investors

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Tomkins, the last of the big, old-style conglomerates, could turn over a new leaf today in a bid to win over reluctant City investors.

With its interim figures, the sprawling creation of ex-Hanson man Greg Hutchings is expected to provide details of a far-reaching reshaping that may well render obsolete the buns-to-guns tag attached to the wide-ranging group.

More importantly, the changes may give Tomkins shares a boost. Conglomerates, once the darling of investors, are now out of fashion. Hanson abdicated as leader of the pack by splitting into four; BTR, still trying to reinvent itself as a focused engineering group, achieved the dubious distinction of emerging as the worst performing blue chip in 1997.

Helped along by signs of a reshaping as well as a modest share buy-back, Tomkins made headway for a time last year. But its shares have sadly under- performed over five years.

The plan, it would appear, is to sell the distribution businesses and other odds and ends, allowing it to concentrate on three core operations: food, automotive components and leisure products.

The food side would embrace the old RHM operation of Hovis, McDougalls and Mr Kipling fame.

But although the buns element will remain, Mr Hutchings has indicated that the guns side, Smith & Wesson, the famous US maker, may be a casualty of the of the reorganisation. There is also a question mark over the mowing machinery operation.

The disposal programme, which could raise more than pounds 1bn if it is as drastic as some suspect, should appease City institutional investors who believe Tomkins shares will perform much more strongly once the group is shorn of its conglomerate image.

They have been critical of its seeming reluctance to give up the now despised rag-bag role. And they have put pressure on Mr Hutchings to fall in line with the more fashionable trends. Last summer Tomkins had around pounds 200m tucked away in its bank account. Once the disposals go through it should be in a position to join the returning-value-to-shareholders bandwagon, either through a share buyback or the more popular "B" share route.

There is no danger of Tomkins losing its appetite for acquisitions. Indeed it is widely suspected it is examining the up-for-sale Dalgety food businesses. Another interested party is Associated British Foods.

Mr Hutchings, a former Hanson corporate development manager, has fashioned Tomkins since he moved in on a little industrial fasteners group, FH Tomkins, in 1983. His first takeover on his way to creating a conglomerate in the image of Hanson was Ferraris, a car parts distributor. As if to prove there is no sentiment in business, Ferraris was sold a year ago, the first hint of the new policy. Hayters, a lawn-mower group, was the second buy of Mr Hutchings.

Although likely to be overshadowed by corporate moves, the interim profits should be impressive, say pounds 210m against pounds 168.8m.

This week should produce more evidence that the retail community fared rather better over the festive season than at one time seemed likely. Tomorrow Kingfisher will offer a trading update and Dixons should indicate how its tills performed in the seasonal spending spree when it reports interim figures on Wednesday.

There is just a little anxiety about the Dixons performance with some fretting that trading will not reach heady expectations. Even so interim profits to mid-November could be pounds 85m, up from pounds 57.5m.

Other retail chains with trading commentaries this week include Next and Boots.

The beerage, in the shape of Whitbread, will also attempt to satisfy the thirst for festive sales knowledge with trading comments on Wednesday. It may also offer some observation on the strong rumour that it has decided to remain a brewer but intends to close two plants.

Diageo, the Grand Metropolitan/Guinness drinks cocktail, may also be in the sales reporting frame this week.

Although a couple of heavyweights offer profit figures the reporting schedule has still to recover from the holiday lay-off.

But if profit figures remain scarce the City's army of strategists continue to make hay in the early days of the year. Merrill Lynch has come out in support of the bulls. It has raised its year-end Footsie forecast to a top-of-the-range 6,000 points from 5,400.

Merrill believe stable bond yields and steady profits growth should offset higher interest rates. And it is impressed by technical influences. Succinctly it observes: "Investors are long of cash, new issuance is low, takeovers are for cash, share buybacks persist and directors have been avid buyers of stock."

Examining just how much cash is washing around the system, Merrill say almost pounds 11bn was raised through rights and new issues last year; cash takeovers and share buybacks took pounds 17.3bn of stock out of the market while dividends returned more than pounds 33bn.

The securities house says directors clearly think prospects are good. "Fund managers, with cash at unusually high levels, seem to disagree. The danger is that directors are proved correct once again and that the economy slows, investors lose their fears and stock prices rise sharply.

"As such we remain bulls of the UK stock market".