Opening Quote: Stumble at Sainsbury’s; Balfour’s back; Saatchi means Saatchi

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J Sainsbury’s chairman was left a little red faced last month, after being reprimanded for roping in staff and suppliers to renovate his East Sussex outbuildings. But the supermarket might have wished David Tyler had bought more Red Leicester and Blue Nun for the ensuing barn dance / outhouse-warming cheese and wine party. This morning’s trading update showed total retail sales grew only 0.1 per cent in the nine weeks to 11 March – and actually fell 0.5 per cent on a like-for-like basis.

Sainsbury’s put this down to the later dates of Easter and Mothers’ Day this year. But the sales performance was still slightly worse than recent data from Kantar Worldpanel had indicated: it suggested that Sainsbury’s sales had risen by 0.3 per cent over 12 weeks to 26th February – and that was still slower than the sales growth at almost every other large UK supermarket chain.

Strip out the ‘later dates’ effect and this maintains a mildly positive trend, though. Like for like sales in the 15 weeks to January 7 were 0.1 per cent higher than a year earlier, having fallen in the six months to the end of September.

At least there was no need for Mr Tyler to boost sales of electrical goods or clothes, however, as non food continued its strong performance.

Catalogue retailer Argos recorded total sales growth of 3.8 per cent and like-for-like sales were up 4.3 per cent – beating expectations. Clothes sales were also ahead of the market, with the Tu clothing brand recording five per cent growth.

Over Christmas, group performance had been carried by non-food: clothing posted a 10 per cent increase while catalogue store Argos posted a 4 per cent increase in like-for-like sales, including growth of about 25 per cent in its supermarket concessions open more than a year.

Chief executive Mike Coupe said:

The market remains very competitive and the impact of cost price pressures remains uncertain. However, we are well placed to navigate the external environment and remain focused on delivering our strategy.

For a construction company, one would hope that the slogan “Build To Last” represented general everyday practice, rather than some kind of remarkable change in strategy. But such have been the woes at Balfour Beatty that the group felt it necessary to adorn its 2015 transformation programme with this statement of the bleeding obvious.

Coming after a torrid two years, in which Balfour issue a string of profit warnings and fought off a takeover attempt, the remedial work seems to be paying off at last. Last August, the company said pre-tax losses fell 86 per cent to £21m for the half year to July 1 on revenues down marginally from £4.2bn a year earlier. It even reinstated its dividend.

And this morning, it reported that it had returned to profit in the full year to December 31, turning a statutory pre-tax loss of nearly £200m into to a profit of £8m.

Its order book grew by 4 per cent at constant exchange rates, to stand at £12.7bn, although the currency effect meant underlying revenue dipped 3 per cent to £8.5bn.

Even so, chief executive used that word again, calling it a “transformation”.

Having simplified the Group, we are focused on our core markets in the UK and US, where governments are committed to large scale expenditure on infrastructure, he said. All this positions us for future profitable growth.

Now the tricky questions surround its pension deficit – which grew to £231m in aggregate from £146m- and whether it plans to try and win work constructing President Donald Trump’s controversial wall along the US-Mexico border.

M&C Saatchi worked on the Remain advertising campaign in the EU referendum – but the agency has managed to emerge as one of the few winners from that side of the argument: like for like revenue rose 19 per cent last year to $196m and pre-tax profit improved 18 per cent to £23.7m. However, pre-tax profits fell by half because of restructuring charges.

Unlike many remoaners, chief executive David Kershaw seems to have put June 23 behind him.

2016 was an outstanding year for M&C Saatchi. We continue to roll out our proven strategy of winning new business and starting new businesses and see positive momentum across our global network and business channels.

Brexit means Brexit!

For commentary on Sports Direct’s pay ratio, a Falkland Islands bidding battle and BNP Paribas buying a UK estate agent, see this morning’s Lombard column.
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