Business news: Lastminute answers critics with double turnover

• Lastminute.com’s financial results for the second quarter exceeded
analysts’ expectations last week. In the three months to 31 March, Lastminute’s
turnover increased to £834,000, more than double its turnover of £409,000 for
the previous quarter. The total value of transactions through the site rose to
£7.2m, a 68 per cent increase on the first quarter. Analysts had predicted that
the company’s turnover would reach about £500,000 for the quarter on a total
transaction value of about £5.5m through the site. The company is still making
heavy losses, reporting a pre-tax loss of £17m for the quarter. Lastminute.com
said it had no estimates for when it would reach profitability, though some
analysts have predicted it may not be for more than three years. Ft.com

Low returns help drag down insurer’s results

• Royal & SunAlliance, the underperforming UK composite insurer, saw
first quarter results fall 4.8 per cent, dragged down by lower investment
returns, acquisitions, and by returning £750m ($1.17bn) to shareholders. The
insurer reported pre-tax operating profit of £138m for the first three months
of this year. This was at the lower end of the range of analysts’ forecasts
which had predicted earnings of between £134m and £159m, and less than the
£145m earned in the first quarter of 1999. The investment return was reduced by
$28m. Group operating earnings per share were 5.9p in the first quarter of this
year, compared with 5.4p in the corresponding 1999 period. Ft.com

Builder’s one-stop shop scheme to beat rivals

• Westbury, the UK’s sixth largest housebuilder, plans to expand its sales
of home-related products such as carpets, dishwashers and bathroom equipment to
distinguish itself from competitors. The company hopes to create greater
customer loyalty by offering housebuyers a "one-stop shop" for the
services and products they need when they move into a new home. This expansion
from the traditional range of services complements the company’s decision to go
into factory-manufactured components such as walls, floors and bathroom units.
"We need to be more than just a housebuilder to increase our total return
to shareholders," said chief executive Martin Donohue as he announced
pre-tax profits up 26 per cent to £53.6m in the year to 29 February on turnover
14 per cent higher at £475.9m. Ft.com

Wireless Group to float, despite uncertain climate

• The Wireless Group, the radio company assembled by Kelvin Mackenzie,
former editor of The Sun newspaper, plans to float this month with a value of
up to £200m. He is pressing ahead with the float, despite volatility in media
and Internet stocks, less than four months since Talk Radio, the national
speech radio channel that is TWG’s main asset, reinvented itself as a sports
channel called Talksport. If the float succeeds, he will have defied critics
who scoffed at his plans when he led a £24.7m takeover of Talk Radio in October
1998. Ft.com

Murdoch breaks away to set up independent firm

• Elisabeth Murdoch is to leave British Sky Broadcasting and News
Corporation to set up a television, film and Internet business, independent of
her father, Rupert Murdoch, the NewsCorp chairman. The sudden departure comes
amid increasing interest in the future leadership of NewsCorp, as Mr Murdoch’s
sons, Lachlan and James, have emerged as the contenders to run the diverging
traditional media and digital wings of the empire. Ms Murdoch, who has been at
BSkyB for four years and has been on the NewsCorp executive committee for
several years, has increasingly been seen as a marginal figure within the
management of the larger media business. Ft.com

Brewing group unveils major investment plan

• Whitbread, the UK brewing and leisure group, reported a 7.1 per cent
increase in annual profits on Thursday as it unveiled details of a £22.5m
($34.97m) investment programme, creating more than 500 jobs. The group, which
brews Stella Artois beer in the UK and manages Brewers Fayre pubs, Beefeater
restaurants and David Lloyd health clubs, said the profit increase was fuelled
by improved consumer confidence in its second half, which had continued into
March and April. Whitbread’s profits for the year to 4 March 2000 were £391.2m
($611.3m), up 7 per cent, on a turnover which was up 7.5 per cent to £3.5bn.
The company proposed a full-year dividend payout of 29.5p a share, up 6.2 per
cent. Whitbread, which owns Marriott Hotels, TGI Fridays, Costa Coffee and
Pizza Hut, is to invest its £22.5m in the next year across Scotland. Projects
include a £4m, 60-bedroom Travel Inn and Beefeater in Milngavie, outside
Glasgow, creating 70 jobs. More than £2.5m will also be invested in a new Brewers
Fayre site in Glasgow, creating 85 new jobs. This is London

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