The Investment Column: NFC is over the worst

IT'S THREE years since Gerry Murphy took the wheel at NFC, and he has taken shareholders in the transport and distribution group on a pretty hairy ride. Despite the upbeat response to yesterday's results and massive share buy-back, the shares - which rose 3p to 181p - are just about back where they were when Mr Murphy took over. At the same time, the market has risen sharply.

Still, it looks as if NFC is over the worst. It has sold off all its peripheral businesses in order to concentrate purely on distribution and moving services. The cost-cutting that still needs to be done in the UK and continental Europe has been fully provided for, and should be more or less over this year.

Mr Murphy's priority now is on expanding the business in continental Europe and the Americas. Since the cash distribution will take gearing to about 80 per cent by September, there is not too much scope for deals. The company claims that it would be happy to ask shareholders for the money back if the right deal came along, but admits nothing is imminent. So any growth is likely to come from winning new contracts, and further improving efficiency.

In that respect, NFC has a lot to do. Operating margins in the Americas are just 3 per cent while the European business, despite a drastic improvement, is still loss-making and is only scheduled to break even next year. NFC needs more scale so it can spread its overheads, and building that up will take time.

Meanwhile the UK, where profits were up just 4 per cent on flat sales, is unlikely to provide much excitement. Unnervingly, NFC also made cautious noises about tough competition in distribution and weakness in the house moving market.

Analysts are looking for full-year profit figures, before exceptionals, of about pounds 125m. That puts NFC shares on a forward earnings multiple of 16. Mr Murphy is to be congratulated on what he has achieved. But those hoping that the shares will make up the ground they have lost in recent years will be disappointed. Hold.