Wickes in black but stops payout

WICKES, the do-it-yourself stores and timber business, has passed the interim dividend, saying the economy is in its worst shape for 60 years. It refused to give any assurance that there would be a final payout.

Wickes returned to a pre-tax profit of pounds 2.57m in the six months to 30 June from losses last time of pounds 12.89m. But while the do-it-yourself shops improved the troublesome timber business continued to lose money.

The results were flattered by the full benefit this time of last year's pounds 43m rights issue. Net borrowings were down to pounds 84.7m by 30 June, a decline of pounds 3.2m.

Stores lifted their contribution from pounds 6m to pounds 8.4m, boosted by eight new openings. Wickes now has 100 shops. Profits grew by 28 per cent in the UK and 32 per cent on the Continent. UK retail sales grew by 7.5 per cent, or 0.5 per cent after stripping out new space.

The timber division stemmed losses from pounds 19m last time to pounds 6.8m, still weighed down by a heavy interest bill. Wickes' chairman, Henry Sweetbaum, said: 'The timber business on an operating basis is getting close to profit.'

However, the restructuring of the business has been more prolonged than expected. Wickes revealed an unexpected pounds 717,000 extraordinary cost of pulling out of hardwood processing.

Mr Sweetbaum said: 'It has taken longer to turn round the hardwood business than we thought. But hopefully that is the end of it.'

There was also a pounds 478,000 charge, partly for scrapping a joint venture with Littlewoods to administer credit cards for Wickes customers. These losses were offset by an extraordinary gain of pounds 5.1m from the conversion of subordinated convertible loan stock into ordinary Wickes shares.

Mr Sweetbaum, who six months ago was hopeful Wickes would pay dividends in 1992, declined to forecast a final payout, saying: 'I would be a brave man and a big fool if I predicted anything. I don't think we've seen an economy like this for 60 years.'

But he added Wickes was well positioned to take advantage of an economic upturn whenever it occurred.

Lord Sieff, a former chairman of Marks & Spencer, is to retire from the Wickes board at the annual meeting. Michael von Brentano, head of investment banking for BZW in Germany, has joined as a non-executive director.

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