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2016 could be the year Wetherspoon's property portfolio shrinks for the first time

14 March 2016 by
2016 could be the year Wetherspoon's property portfolio shrinks for the first time

JD Wetherspoon's current financial year could be the first in its history as a PLC that its property portfolio shrinks.

That was the admission from the company's chief executive John Hutson as he presented the half year results for the 26 weeks to 24 January 2016.

The business is one of the country's largest managed pub companies with a total of 954 pubs during the half-year period. It became a PLC in April 1992.

It expects to open 15 pubs during the course of its financial year, but also hopes to sell around 50 sites, resulting in a potential net reduction of 35 pubs.

A total of 15 new openings in a year is low compared with 2000 when Wetherspoon underwent its most rapid period of growth, opening 101 sites, with around 70-90 pubs launching each year either side of that. In 2006, shortly before the credit crunch bit, when property prices were at their peak, it opened just nine.

However Hutson said the relatively low number of openings expected this financial year was not necessarily an indication that the company expected another property crash, and that a reduction in its portfolio was dependent on it selling all of the sites it intended to sell, which is not currently a certainty.

"Our reasons for stepping back are on this occasion less to do with an overheated property market and more to do with the other things that we want to do with our money," he said.

The company has been gradually increasing the number of freehold properties it holds, now accounting for around 50% of its total estate, and it has also been investing in more hotel rooms and kitchen facilities, as well as so-called "freehold reversions" where it buys sites it occupies as a tenant.

"Most of our new openings are freehold and we like the idea of being freehold. Maybe it is being conservative but with a freehold you have always got that control, you are not exposed to rent increases, landlords insurance increases, and you are not exposed to service charges and if at some point in the future you don't want to be in that site it is much easier to exit a freehold than a leasehold," Hutson said.

"Over the years the openings have flexed and sometimes the market we felt had been against us and at other times we felt there were other things we would rather do with our money. One of the features has been we have buying in freeholds where we are the tenant - freehold reversions. In the last few years £80m of capex has gone on that. We are at the stage now with 954 pubs where we are not in a rush to put down new sites all the time. We are still opening more pubs but that is one aspect of where our money has gone. Another aspect would be building a few more hotel rooms or spending a bit more on investment in catering."

Hutson's comments came on the day that JD Wetherspoon chairman Tim Martin renewed his call for an exit from the EU in order to return power to the national parliament.

At the same time, the business announced a 3.9% decrease in pre-tax profit to £49.4m in its interim results for the 26 weeks to 24 January 2016. Like-for-like sales increased by 2.9%, with total revenue up 6.2% to £790.3m.

In the six weeks to 6 March 2016, since the end of the reporting period, like-for-like sales and total sales grew by 3.7% and 5.7% respectively.

The decline in operating margin was explained as being due to a lower gross margin and higher rates for pub staff. However, the reduction in profit before tax was partially offset by a property gain of £3.8m.

Commenting on the results, Martin said that sales comparisons in the second half of the financial year would be slightly more favourable, despite further wage increases in April.

"As a number of pub companies have indicated, the pub and restaurant market is highly competitive, but we are aiming for a reasonable outcome for the financial year," he added.

Martin went on to say that the biggest danger to the pub industry was the ongoing tax disparity between supermarkets and pubs, with supermarkets not paying the 20% VAT on food sales that pubs pay, enabling them to subsidise their alcohol prices.

Regarding Martin's support of the leave campaign in the EU debate, he said that a withdrawal from Europe will increase the level of democracy and accountability in the UK. Once outside the EU, he believes it would be in the economic and other interests of the UK and its European neighbours "to have friendly relations, strong business links, including free trade and, I believe, free movement of labour".

He pointed to Norway and Switzerland, which are not in the EU, as being two of the "richest and most successful countries in the world", with EU countries having an open trading relationship with them and citizens from both countries being able to live and work in the UK, needing only a passport or identity card.

Hutson himself said that he was not sure his own view on the EU referendum was "100% formed yet".

"I am probably like a lot of other people in the UK at the moment, wading through the fors and againsts. Tim has been careful to say that it is his view. It is not a view that has been imposed on other individuals or the company," he added.

When asked if he could see potential advantages for the business in leaving the EU, he said: "For Wetherspoon as a company we are not a multinational. We trade a little bit in the Republic of Ireland but the vast majority of our income is derived from the United Kingdom in sterling so I would say any advantages or disadvantages to Wetherspoon about being in our out of Europe are probably the same as for the population in general. I don't think you could say that there is an angle for Wetherspoon that wouldn't be the same for the country in general."

Wetherspoon's Tim Martin renews call for the UK to leave the EU >>
Wetherspoon can ‘no longer support' VAT Club Jacques Borel >>
Rise in staff pay expected to dent profits at JD Wetherspoon >>

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