STOCK MARKET WEEK: Simpson finds golden opportunity to outline grand strategy for GEC

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The Independent Online
George Simpson, recruited to lead General Electric Co in the post- Weinstock era, has a golden opportunity to explain his grand strategy this week. The nation's electronics giant is due to produce its yearly results; they are expected to be little changed at just over pounds 1bn. But a raft of exceptional charges could distort the picture, pushing the figure to around pounds 800m.

Under the 35-year rule of Lord Weinstock, GEC grew from a modest electrical business to its present, near-pounds 11bn capitalisation. There were some spectacular takeover bids (and battles) along the way such as Associated Electrical Industries and English Electric in the 1960s with names like Ferranti, Plessey and VSEL gathered in subsequent years.

Although he has chopped and rationalised Lord Weinstock has left GEC with a rather curious structure. GEC Marconi, its defence business, is the only important operation in full ownership. Other main profit-earners are partly owned like the Hotpoint and Creda consumer goods side where GEC has 50.5 per cent of the capital. The group has accumulated and lovingly nursed one of the biggest cash piles in British industry, now standing at a cool pounds 2.3bn.

Mr Simpson arrived a year ago from what is now LucasVarity. There are growing signs he has looked and, in his mind, decided the direction he wants to take. Next will come the action; the reshaping and streamlining of the sprawling, even rambling, giant which, despite its dominant presence on the domestic front, is still overshadowed by the likes of Siemens of Germany and ABB, the Swedish-Swiss group.

It seems that many of the partly owned companies will be sold or go into full GEC ownership. Deals with Siemens are likely.

Before the French elections swept the Socialists into power Mr Simpson was intent on merging GEC Marconi with the French group Thomson-CSF of France. But the poll result put paid to such ambitions.

The French setback gave a new lease of life to one of the stock market's most bewhiskered takeover stories - a GEC merger with British Aerospace.

The two have had talks; they nearly reached a conclusion when BAe looked a crippled company in 1993 with its shares nose-diving to 112p.

This time round many are convinced the old merger tale will enjoy the ring of truth. And they believe Mr Simpson is clearing the decks for such an eventuality.

In the past month there has been something of a boardroom merry-go-round. And Lord Prior, long-time chairman and close ally of Lord Weinstock, has announced he will depart in March.

GEC watchers believe the most significant move occurred on Budget day when, while the stock market's attention was focused on Gordon Brown, it was announced that David Newland, very much part of the old guard, had quit as finance director.

His decision to go just ahead of the figures is surprising. Could it mean the results will be hit even harder than expected by provisions? Or is it another sign the deck is being cleared for that BAe deal?

There is, after all, a strong case to be made for a GEC/BAe merger.

It always seemed that in the Weinstock years GEC was happy to negotiate with BAe when it was flying low; once it got to a position of strength it was less keen on the deal. Perhaps Mr Simpson is more sympathetic to a merger with a much more muscular, although still much smaller, group.

This month GEC shares have performed strongly, even shrugging off the impact of the ever more powerful pound. In what can only be described as a highly volatile, topsy-turvy market the electronic giant's performance indicates the expectation that Mr Simpson will have something rather more interesting than dull, little-changed figures to talk about tomorrow.

The blue chip reaction to the Budget, with Footsie romping to new peaks, has clearly been generated by something more than relief over the Brown measures.

Desperate trading resulting from derivative operations seems largely responsible.

For the second and third-liners it has all been a non-event. The FTSE 250 index, covering the 250 shares immediately outside Footsie, and the FTSE SmallCap index have continued to look neglected. However, here is talk that when the current turmoil is over attention could switch to the non-Footsie stocks.

After all, many blue chips are looking decidedly expensive and cash-rich institutions could feel obliged to gather in some of the valuation bargains now lurking in the lower reaches of the market.

Company results are again in short supply this week.

Tomkins, the last of the great conglomerates to remain content with its rag-bag lot, should demonstrate today that its buns to guns mixture is still working. Year's figures should emerge at pounds 430m, up from pounds 322.9m.

Dixons, the electrical retailer, is another with year's results. The market looks for around pounds 196m against pounds 139.2m on Wednesday.

Marston Thompson & Evershed, the Pedigree bitter brewer, is among the smaller companies in the reporting frame. A pounds 2m year's gain to pounds 29.5m seems likely.

Unfortunately for Marston, sales of traditional bitters are under renewed pressure and although it is ambitiously building its retail spread it has yet to achieve the power of Greene King, which paid pounds 197.5m for the Magic Pub Co and last month rolled out a near-50 per cent profit increase.

The Pedigree group is striving to increase its presence in the more trendy areas of drink retailing. Last year it splashed out an astonishing pounds 19.95m for the seven-strong Pitcher & Piano chain. It has increased its P&P spread but is unlikely to be reaping outstanding rewards from its retail excursion.

Others reporting year's profits include Budgens supermarket chain where pounds 9.2m against pounds 7.9m is likely and property group Helical Bar, marginally higher at pounds 9.1m.

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