BOOKER, the UK’s largest cash and carry business yesterday said its first-half profits had climbed by 12 per cent.<br /><br />The group, which runs over 170 branches supplying corner shops, grocers, and restaurants, said it made a pre-tax profit of £29.7m in the 24 weeks to 11 September, up from £26.5m the year before.<br /><br />Booker said total sales jumped by 7.7 per cent in the period to £1.6bn. Like-for-like sales of non-tobacco products rose by 9.4 per cent and like-for-like sales of tobacco lifted by 5.1 per cent.<br /><br />Chief executive Charles Wilson, a protégé of Marks & Spencer boss Stuart Rose, joined Booker in 2005 with a mission to turn the struggling business around.<br /><br />The group, which moved from Aim to the main market in July, yesterday said that it had succeeded in slashing debt by £24.4m over the year. It now stands at £4m.<br /><br />Analysts have touted Wilson as a “dark horse” external candidate that could succeed Rose at M&S. But yesterday Wilson told City A.M.: “I’m genuinely not in the market for any job other than at Booker. I’m 100 per cent committed to the company.”<br /><br />Despite an upbeat performance, Wilson maintained a cautious outlook, saying he was planning for a “double dip” recession. He added: “If it doesn’t happen, then hallelujah.” <br /><br />The group last month opened its first international store in India and said it will track its progress as a pilot for future expansion in emerging markets. <br /><br />Wilson said: “We supply a lot of Indian businesses in the UK and customers asked us to think about India. We have a good reputation and, because India is a high-growth country, we sent a team of highly skilled people to have a look.”<br /><br />Investec analyst Nicola Mallard said: “ Booker has pitched its stall at helping its Indian customers become more efficient. The mantra of better choice, price and service is a key part of the marketing campaign in Mumbai too.”<br /><br />Mallard added that Indian expansion could be a major growth driver.