The Investment column: Inn with the old crowd

ELDRIDGE Pope, the Dorchester-based pubs operator which sold its brewing interests last year and enfranchised its non-voting shares a couple of months ago, has won a few more friends in the City since it became a more modern and focused company.

The business is no longer family controlled and is now simply a pub group with a mix of 189 managed and tenanted pubs. The shares edged up 3p to 331.5p yesterday on half year profits which rose from pounds 1.5m to pounds 1.8m, even though analysts find the company's pub portfolio a safe but unexciting prospect.

True, the estate is being improved. More than 20 underperforming pubs have been weeded out and the strategy is to re-invest the proceeds in high-yielding managed outlets. Like-for-like profits in the managed houses were up by 9 per cent.

But Eldridge Pope has come late to the themed bars business and its two modern formats, the Bar Excellence city centre bars and the Slurping Toads, which cater for younger drinkers, are not seen as leaders in the field against rivals such as All Bar One and Pitcher & Piano.

Perhaps more interesting are the 16 Fireside Inns pubs which are aimed at an older audience. With a higher degree of emphasis on food, the concept might have more mileage than bars aimed at hip young city dwellers.

Eldrige's spread of business may make it a safer haven for investment during a downturn. But if the boom in modern theme pubs continues, Eldridge Pope could be exposed. Assuming full year profits of pounds 6.4m, the shares trade on a forward rating of 15. About right.

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