The Investment Column: Booker

JUST IN case we hadn't got the message how bad things were at Booker from the annual results it put out in April, the group released another results statement yesterday, for the 62 weeks to the end of March.

The statement, following the group's change of year-end, marks the near- completion of the group's re-organisation after Stuart Rose took control of the troubled distributor in October. Since his arrival, he's notched up pounds 150m of exceptional charges incurred in slimming the group down to a focused cash-and- carry player.

Mr Rose says there will be no more operating exceptionals, but there may be some costs in the remaining disposals, a salmon farm and a US poultry business. He also expects debt to fall to under pounds 300m by the year- end. In the meantime, he has suspended dividends "for the foreseeable future".

Now he wants Booker to be the largest, most efficient, customer-friendly and profitable player in the business. So far it is only the largest and it faces some tough competition. Wal-Mart's imminent arrival could make the market even fiercer.

Analysts expect full-year profits of pounds 29m and earnings of 8.5p per share this year, putting the shares, down a penny at 87.5p yesterday, on a rating of 10. That sounds cheap, but Booker has much to prove and the rating is fair.

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