The Investment Column : Overseas stores profit Courts

Whenever there is talk of how UK retailers fail to cut the mustard overseas, there is rarely any talk of Courts, the 150-year old furnishings group. Though based in Britain, the company has outlets in far-flung spots such as Jamaica, Belize, Mauritius and Fiji.

In fact, the UK operations are the worst performers of the lot. Though group profits excluding exceptionals were 13 per cent higher at pounds 18m, UK profits were flat.

The company is trying to shift more of its operations from poor high street locations to out-of-town sites but has admitted making mistakes. It is now offering more interest-free credit deals, spending more on staff training and improving its merchandise. The 34 out-of-town stores now account for three-quarters of sales and several new openings are planned.

A new superstore is opening in Dublin next week which will sell electrical equipment as well as furniture (as all the overseas store do).

Domestic like-for-like sales were 2 per cent higher over the year though the company says trade since the year-end is encouraging. The real engine of growth is overseas which accounts for all but pounds 5m of pounds 31m operating profits. Here comparative sales rose by 8 per cent.

South-east Asia increased profits by 28 per cent and the Caribbean by 65 per cent. Only the Pacific region disappointed, with profits slumping by half to pounds 2.4m due to regulatory changes.

With the Malaysian operations set to be floated off within the next two years and other divisions expected to follow, this age-old plodder should continue to perform. The shares have performed well this year and jumped another 33p to 993p yesterday. With analysts upgrading profits forecasts to pounds 21.4m this year the shares are on a fancy multiple of 22. But the premium rating is deserved.

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