The Investment Column: GUS still has a long way to go

Turning around slumbering giant Great Universal Stores was always going to be a long haul for chairman Lord Wolfson. Yesterday's figures show there is still a way to go.

While half year profits edged up 7 per cent to pounds 244m the improvement was due entirely to a strong performance from the Experian data base and credit rating business. Profits in all the retail businesses fell, some of them sharply though part was from a currency hit in continental Europe and at Burberry.

However, problems are not as bad as might appear and management is addressing the key issues. One is to drive the UK mail order business from its previous stagnant state.

Sales there increased by 6.4 per cent over the previous half partly due to including more higher risk customers. But profits fell due to improved services costs such as better response and delivery times.

Buying sales growth with lower credit scoring customers is increasing bad debt ratings, though GUS reckons sales will be stronger in the long run.

The pounds 20m deal to buy four direct mail order catalogues from Burton will take GUS's direct mail order sales to more than pounds 100m and it is clear Lord Wolfson would love to do larger deals.

At Burberry, the City knew sales were under pressure, but news of trading through unlicensed distributors in the brand causing a hit of up to pounds 8m was a surprise.

Lord Wolfson admitted it showed lack of supply controls that will now be tightened up.

The real bonanza for GUS has been Experian. Acquired for pounds 1bn a year ago, it is performing strongly and now accounts for a third of GUS profits.

Other bolt-on deals are expected here and the balance sheet will show pounds 500m of cash by the spring to fund them.

Assuming full year profits of pounds 580m, the shares - up 25p yesterday to 710p, trade on a forward rating of 18. High enough for now.

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