Booker cuts debt pile as sales jump

BOOKER, the UK&rsquo;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 &pound;29.7m in the 24 weeks to 11 September, up from &pound;26.5m the year before.<br /><br />Booker said total sales jumped by 7.7 per cent in the period to &pound;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 prot&eacute;g&eacute; of Marks &amp; 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 &pound;24.4m over the year. It now stands at &pound;4m.<br /><br />Analysts have touted Wilson as a &ldquo;dark horse&rdquo; external candidate that could succeed Rose at M&amp;S. But yesterday Wilson told City A.M.: &ldquo;I&rsquo;m genuinely not in the market for any job other than at Booker. I&rsquo;m 100 per cent committed to the company.&rdquo;<br /><br />Despite an upbeat performance, Wilson maintained a cautious outlook, saying he was planning for a &ldquo;double dip&rdquo; recession. He added: &ldquo;If it doesn&rsquo;t happen, then hallelujah.&rdquo; <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: &ldquo;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.&rdquo;<br /><br />Investec analyst Nicola Mallard said: &ldquo; 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.&rdquo;<br /><br />Mallard added that Indian expansion could be a major growth driver.