Stoves still on the boil

INVESTMENT COLUMN
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The Independent Online
Stoves has been a storming performer since it floated at 163p last June. The shares' 55 per cent outperformance against the market since then has been a beacon of hope among some notable disasters from last year's mixed bag of new issues.

Bought out by new management from Yale & Valor in 1989, the then loss- making group revived the pre-war Stoves brand name for its range of kitchen cookers. But that is about the only area where the new team harked back to the past. It has pioneered a flexible manufacturing approach which not only cuts stocks, but allows it to bring products to the market much more quickly than rivals, while tailoring them to suit the requirements of customers more precisely.

The result has been a remarkable British success story. From being 85 per cent reliant on supplying its then mainstay, the rather down-market free-standing Valor stove, to British Gas showrooms seven years ago, the company now claims market leadership in the fast-growing built-in cooker sector, both electric and gas. It has shown a clean pair of heels to major international groups like Electrolux, Whirlpool and GEC and now boasts between 12 and 14 per cent of the UK cooking sector.

With a record like that, it is perhaps hardly surprising that the smallest upset would unsettle investors. Yesterday's half-time results to 2 December bore the scars of difficult markets in 1995, lopping 20p off the share price to leave it at 280p. Pre-tax profits 13 per cent ahead at pounds 1.5m were only kept moving by the cut in the interest bill as a result of the flotation. Gross margins were sliced by 2.5 points to 18.5 per cent, despite a 24 per cent jump in turnover to pounds 27.9m.

Stoves was unable to recover sharpish rises in raw materials early in 1995, while sales slumped during the hot summer, a situation which even a strong second quarter could not retrieve. The market remains difficult, but Stoves seems to have recovered its form, with margins said to be significantly improved and sales 20 per cent ahead in the third quarter.

On reduced profits forecasts of pounds 4.35m for the full year, the shares are up with events on a forward multiple of 24. But with the group continuing to snap up market share and now starting to look abroad, they should be held.

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