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AG Barr still has a thirst for mergers

AG BARR chief executive Roger White has indicated he retains an appetite for future deals and that the Irn-Bru maker has the financial firepower to take advantage of opportunities, despite the failure of its proposed £1.4 billion merger with rival Britvic last year.

POSITIVE: Chief executive of the Irn-Bru maker Roger White says the company has the financial power to take advantage of opportunities.
POSITIVE: Chief executive of the Irn-Bru maker Roger White says the company has the financial power to take advantage of opportunities.

The Cumbernauld company shrugged of the collapse of the deal with a better than expected 9.6% rise in underlying annual pre-tax profits to £38.1 million for the year ended January 26.

The company saw turnover rise 6.9%, beating the wider market, as it persuaded more shoppers in England to buy its beverages.

Mr White said: "We have shown over a number of years we are interested in developing our business and if M&A (merger and acquisition) opportunities come along we will review them. It is quite a highly consolidated market place. But that does not mean to say there is nothing to do.

"Our job is to make sure the balance sheet is in a strong position so that when opportunities come along we are capable of acting decisively."

After strong cash generation last year, AG Barr's net debt plunged from £25.6m to £2.1m.

The failed Britvic deal cost AG Barr £5m, including £2.1m in the latest financial year as it dealt with a Competition Commission inquiry.

AG Barr's pre-tax profit after exceptional items such as these was £34.3m for the year, up 8.6% on the previous 12 months.

Mr White said: "The business has benefited hugely from the challenges of the past year, emerging stronger, fitter and more ambitious to develop."

The mooted Britvic tie-up hit sales of its Barr branded soft drinks range which rose just 3.2% as the company sought to phase out flavours including limeade ahead of the planned merger. It has since reversed this, added a bubblegum flavour to its range and is developing a Barr XTRA Cola, to go up against Coca Cola Zero, this year.

Sales in Scotland now account for 40% of AG Barr's income with revenue growing in line with the market.

But in England and Wales, sales grew 9% as it targeted areas like the north of England with its soft drinks range.

Sales of Irn-Bru rose 4.3%, with the rate of expansion in the final six months of the year twice those of the first half as its promotional pricing was brought into line with that of competitors

Irn-Bru sales in England and Wales were up 7.5% in the period, driven by double-digit growth in Irn-Bru Sugar Free.

AG Barr is now producing as much canned Irn-Bru in its new £40m Milton Keynes factory as it does in Cumbernauld, where it employs up to 500 people, after starting production in July. AG Barr is reviewing the likely future demand for different pack sizes before expanding the English factory further.

Mr White declined to be drawn on the potential impact on AG Barr of Scotland's independence referendum.

"We will deal with policy not politics," he said.

He added: "There is obviously the potential to create risk from any political change, whether coming from Westminster, Holyrood or Brussels."

With Suntory buying Ribena and Lucozade last year, AG Barr anticipates it will lose the UK contract for the Japanese company's Orangina brand. The contract is worth £6m to £7m of annual sales to the AG Barr but "considerably less" in profit, Mr White said.

Panmure Gordon analyst Damian McNeela said: "We expect AG Barr to continue to deliver against its organic growth strategy and should benefit from its sponsorship of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow later this year."

AG Barr is planning Games-linked campaigns for brands including Irn-Bru, its Rubicon fruit juice stable, Barr and Strathmore water.

AG Barr's shares closed up 12.5p or 2.2% at 594.5p.

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