The Investment Column: Thistle axes 30 provincial hotels

THISTLE HOTELS is a prime example of how not to float on the stock market. Ever since the group came to the market in October 1996, it has proved a huge disappointment. Not only did it commit the cardinal sin for a newly quoted group by consistently missing analysts' profit forecasts, but it has continued to lag behind its peers in the hotel sector.

Robert Peel, the group's embattled chief executive, paid the penalty by getting the boot last autumn. Although he can hardly grumble at a pounds 700,000 pay-off.

With Mr Peel out of the way, Thistle has decided to take the sword to its hotel estate. Thirty provincial hotels are to go, with the pounds 100m or so proceeds pumped back into its London four-star hotel estate. The group has also launched a shake up of its hotel management team and a long-overdue upgrade of the group's information technology systems. And another pounds 50m will be spent this year sprucing up its tired hotels.

These are all sensible moves and there is plenty of scope to drive room rates forward by concentrating on the corporate market rather than tourists. After all, the only advantage of under performing peers for the last few years is it gives greater potential to improve earnings in the future. But Thistle will have to start showing it can move room yields forward much more quickly than it has demonstrated in the past to calm investors' frayed nerves.

The City's concerns were demonstrated clearly yesterday when the shares fell 9p to 181.5p even though Thistle announced a 34 per cent rise in pre-tax profits to pounds 80.6m in 1997. However, the hotel market is likely to remain buoyant for the foreseeable future, and analysts forecast current year profits of around pounds 95m-pounds 96m, putting the shares on a prospective p/e ratio of 14.

It is too early to say if Thistle has turned the corner but at least it appears to be moving in the right direction and a new chief executive should be appointed imminently. Fairly priced.