Taylor Nelson earmarks up to pounds 30m for overseas buying spree

Taylor Nelson AGB, the UK's largest market research company, is planning to spend up to pounds 30m on foreign acquisitions. It is planning a spending spree to take advantage of cheap buying opportunities abroad created by the strong pound.

The company said yesterday it had pounds 10m in cash to make overseas purchases, in particular in Eastern Europe. Analysts predicted Taylor Nelson could comfortably spend pounds 25-30m on expansion, through a combination of cash and debt.

Tony Cowling, chief executive, said the strength of the pound provided a golden opportunity for a UK company to expand internationally. He said he was "actively" identifying acquisitions, and would anticipate closing a deal in the next six months, if the price was right. Mr Cowling added that Taylor Nelson would like to buy in Russia and Scandinavia, but said prices in the US and the Far East were prohibitive.

Strong profits from its most recent acquisition - a Danish company that deals in audience measurement of TV, radio, and press, which it bought for pounds 6m three months ago - encouraged it to look at the possibilities of expansion in Northern Europe. Reporting a 38 per cent jump in pre-tax profits to pounds 5.5m for the first half of the year, Mr Cowling said the company's media, healthcare and consumer divisions had all performed well. Turnover for the TV audience measurement division was up 229 per cent.

Analysts were impressed with the figures. Paul Richards, media analyst at Panmure Gordon, said he would be issuing a "buy" note today as they were a "cracking set of results".

Mr Richards said Taylor Nelson's consumer research division had benefited from a buoyant economy, and a growing demand for market research expertise from retailers launching loyalty cards.

He said the company should have no problem taking on debt for future growth. "Buying in Europe makes so much sense at the moment because you get so much for your pound."

Mr Cowling said a number of "nasty problems" had been solved. Cost-cutting in the group's French operations had yielded returns, and last year's purchase of the Market Research Bureau of Ireland had beefed up the Irish business.

The disposal of a loss-making subsidiary, MRM, the leaflet distributor, at the end of last year had also helped matters. Mr Cowling said the difficulties of MRM, which Taylor Nelson bought two years ago, had taught him a "good lesson" not to get involved in businesses too far removed from the core market research area.

Turnover in the business division fell 11 per cent due to the loss of a contract with BT in the first half of the year. However, Mr Cowling said yesterday a new piece of business from BT would make up for the lost contract in the second half.

Taylor Nelson already has a presence in Romania, Russia, Poland and the Czech Republic. The company is running a pilot research project with half a dozen clients in Russia measuring consumption of soft drinks, snacks and confectionery. Taylor Nelson is also considering exporting some of its most successful UK research products such as the healthcare operation. A European service to measure people's health is being piloted.