Wetherspoon to open 350 pubs in five years

Pubs group JD Wetherspoon announced an accelerated pub opening programme yesterday in a move that industry watchers said was a first defence against a rumoured bid from brewing giant Scottish & Newcastle.

The company said the announcement that it planned to open 350 outlets by 2001, creating 10,000 full- and part-time jobs over the next five years, had nothing to do with a weekend press article suggesting S&N had run its slide rule over the fast-growing pub retailer.

Wetherspoon has been the subject of bid speculation for some time after swoops by the brewing leaders on other fast-growing concept pub and restaurant groups. Over the past year Whitbread has acquired Pelican, Greene King has bought the Magic Pub Company and Rank has snapped up Tom Cobleigh.

In each case the large integrated groups were attempting to buy a ready- made launchpad into the eating-out market, which analysts believe is the fastest-growing part of the leisure market. Britain lags far behind the US in terms of spend per head on eating and drinking outside the home but it is catching up fast.

Wetherspoon, which has 170 pubs around the country employing 5,500 people, is looking to build its chain at around 60 pubs a year. "Our jobs programme is one of the biggest in the pubs industry and will be a major boost for many regions," said Tim Martin, the group chairman.

The group, which last month reported a 46 per cent rise in pre-tax profits to pounds 8.1m for the six months to January, said capital expenditure in the year to July was likely to be in the region of pounds 52m. It opened 18 pubs in the first half and expects to open another 30 in the second half as the roll-out rate builds to 60 openings a year.

Wetherspoon has been one of the most successful of recent flotations, its shares having risen almost tenfold since it floated at the end of 1992. Yesterday they closed 2.5p lower at 1,185p.

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