The Investment Column: Lottery hampers Park Food profits

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The Independent Online
Birkenhead-based hamper group Park Food has often been mentioned as a possible bid target. Such suggestions are perhaps hardly surprising as the outcome of any approach would hinge on just one vote - that of 64 per cent shareholder Peter Johnson, who also chairs another Merseyside institution, Everton football club.

Last month the shares, depressed by an earlier profits warning, bounced off their year's low of 74p on news that fellow Park Food director Stuart Marks had sounded out Mr Johnson about the possibility of mounting a management buy-out. To avoid any potential conflict of interest, Mr Marks resigned from Park's board while information about the company was disclosed to him and his advisers.

No further takeover developments emerged with yesterday's results for the year to March, which revealed Park's first profits setback since 1988. Pre-tax income fell 31 per cent to pounds 9.5m on sales 6 per cent lower at pounds 161m.

Park blamed three factors for the shortfall. One was the National Lottery, which took loose change out of the pockets of some of Park's one million customers that would normally have gone into saving up for Christmas hampers at up to pounds 200 a pop.

Problems linked to the closure of Park's wholesale hamper office in Windsor and moving it to Birkenhead were also cited. But the biggest, albeit unspecified, hit was taken at Handling Solutions, the marketing services and promotions handling division run by Mr Marks. Big contracts on its direct mail and database management side failed to materialise until after the year end.

Given the highly seasonal nature of its business, Park continues to diversify into other areas. Test runs for a new type of flavoured potato snack have already started and it should move into commercial production in the very near future. About pounds 4m of investment is riding on the success of this venture.

Profits are expected to rebound this year to at least pounds 12m, implying a price/earnings ratio of 21, with the shares down 1p at 106p yesterday. But with Park in effect in play, the fundamentals of the business are unlikely to have much bearing on the shares in the short-term. And as the old stock market adage goes: never buy on bid hopes alone. Best watched from the sidelines.