The Investment Column: Smart returns from Moss Bros

MOSS Bros is one of those medium-sized retailers that just quietly gets on with the job. With a market value of around pounds 200m and with a large family shareholding, it does not attract much attention.

But under managing director Rowland Gee, Moss Bros has built a menswear retail business that now accounts for 3.1 per cent of the UK menswear market, up by a fifth on last year. It sells 12 per cent of men's suits and also has a large share of the shirt market.

Moss Bros's formats cover the entire scope of the market, with stores such as the Suit Company, Savoy Taylor's Guild, Cecil Gee, the Blazer chain - acquired from Storehouse - and designer label stores under the Yves Saint Laurent and Boss names. Add in the hire business for which the group is still best known and it is an impressive portfolio.

A succession of good results have contributed to an almost nine-fold rise in the shares over the last five years. The going has been tougher more recently and the shares have trailed the market by 31 per cent over the last two years. However, this owes more to smaller retailers being out of favour following profits warnings from the likes of Oasis.

Moss Bros itself remains as sharp as a well-pressed suit. On top of profits up by 23 per cent to pounds 19.6m last year, like-for-like sales rose by 7 per cent. This is double the sector average. Same store sales are 5 per cent ahead in current trading which, though a slight slowdown, is still double the industry average. Margins have been maintained.

And the company is benefiting from the trend towards smart-casual dressing at the expense of sportswear.

With cash balances of pounds 20m, the balance sheet is strong. Around 10 more stores will open this year and Mr Gee reckons there is room for another 40-50 in total.

This year will be tough with higher interest rates taking their toll on high street spending. But Moss Bros trades cleverly with planned promotions that do not harm its margins.

On analysts forecasts of pounds 22m this year, the shares trade on a forward rating of 15. This is a little mean for a well-managed company, even though the shares, up 7p to 260.5p yesterday, have jumped sharply in the last couple of months. They remain a solid hold.

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