Grant Thornton Suffolk Limited report reveals solid year for county’s biggest firms

Jonathan Agar of Birketts. left, with Ian Thoroughgood of Grant Thornton.

Jonathan Agar of Birketts. left, with Ian Thoroughgood of Grant Thornton. - Credit: Archant

Suffolk’s leading companies have together recorded solid growth in sales and profits over the past year, according to the new Suffolk Limited report from Grant Thornton.

The annual study shows that the 100 largest companies based in the county achieved a combined turnover of £4.43billion in their most recent financial years, an increase of 6.3% on the previous 12 months.

Combined operating profit for the companies (from which Bury St Edmunds-based Greene King is excluded, to avoid its national pub network skewing the figures) increased by 11.4% to £235million and profit before tax was 6.2% higher at £214m.

On a like-for-like basis, including only the 91 companies retaining their place in the survey from the previous year, the performance was even stronger, with turnover up 6.8% and operating profit 11.9% higher.

Across the leading 100 firms, total debt increased by 14.8% to £648m, with short term debt just 2.4% higher at £303m but long term debt rising by 28.4% to £345m.

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Interest cover decreased to 7.3, a fall of 11.1% compared with a year ago, and gearing increased to 41%, up from 37% in last year’s report.

Ian Thoroughgood, associate director at Grant Thornton’s Ipswich office, said this year’s was the first truly “post recession” survey, with the increase in gearing suggesting that businesses were feeling the confidence to invest and feeling more comfortable about taking on debt.

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Staff costs increased 6.8% to £692m, well ahead of the 2.0% increase in staff numbers to 30,741, which Mr Thoroughgood said represented an investment in people too.

“The increase in staff costs ahead of the increase in staff numbers suggests that many companies are not only rewarding their existing people but also needing to pay a premium to attract new people, indicative of the country-wide skills gap,” he said.

The average salary for Suffolk Limited companies rose by 4.7% to £22,503. This was lower not only compared with the UK average of £27,271, according to the Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings, but also with the equivalent figure for Suffolk of £23,079.

This suggested that, having a relatively high number of lower paid workers, Suffolk Limited companies stood to be more affected, compared with the county as a whole, by the new National Living Wage, said Mr Thoroughgood.

A breakdown of the survey shows that all sectors represented within Suffolk Limited saw an increase in turnover with the single exception of Manufacuturing while all sectors saw profits increase apart from Services and Retail and Wholesale Distributuion.

The Transport and Motor Retail sector grew by one to a total of 21 companies, with the exit of Deben Transport Holdings, which went into administration in April, being offset by new entries, Cecil & Larter and Lombard Shipping.

The sector saw sales rise by 6.1% to £1.3bn, representing 29% of the total turnover of Suffolk Limited, and operating profit grew by 24.8% to £56m.

Mr Thoroughgood said the increase in profitability was lagely down to hauliers, who had benefited from lower fuel costs. This also had a knock-on benefit for commercial vehicle dealerships, but margins for car dealerships remained very tight.

Maritime Group had a particularly impressive year with a £35.1m increase in turnover and an £8.6m increase in operating profit, while Marriot Holdings, Chassis-Cab, Spencers and Seafast Holdings all saw turnover growth of more than 15%.

Membership in the Property and Construction sector fell by one to 10. Brooks & Wood was a new entry while Claret Engineering and Cocksedge (Holdings) both dropping out, the latter due to a change of ownership.

Turnover grew by 11.1% to £456m and operating profits jumped by 77.2% to £24m, with the rise in sales translating into stronger growth in earnings as a result of the sector’s low operating margins.

Hopkins Homes had a strong year, with turnover risinig from £54.5m to £70.7m while Omar Group also saw strong growth in percentage terms, with sales rising from £13.8m to £23.8m. Hopkins’ sales growth translated into a £6m increase in operating profit while Taylor Made improved its profitability despite sales being relatively flat.

There were no changes in Food and Agriculture, with the same 12 firms again represented in the sector, where turnover grew by 11.6% to £747m and operating profit by 14.7% to £46.

All but one of the firms increased their turnover, with Spearhead International extending its lead by increasing its sales from £152m to £186m. Turnover at Muntons increased from £102m to £122m, partly down to an extended reporting period, pushing its year end away from the busy harvest season, but also refelcting continuing expansion.

In profit terms, Thompson Investments contributed earnings of nearly £4m, up from £300,000 the previous year, Muntons added £4m to its profits and Easey Holdings contributed £2.6m.

In Retail and Wholesale Distribution member grew by one, with the Suffolk Meat Company leaving the list due to a drop in turnover and Precon Products and HTG Investments both joining.

Sales grew by 2.5% to £1.08bn, largely driven by the increased membership in the sector, but operating profits dipped by 0.4%.

East of England Co-op, the biggest company in the sector, saw sales remain broadly static at around £342m while profit dropped by £5.7m the year before to £2.8m. KDM Timber and Hughes Electrical both showed strong sales growth and Robinson Young posted an increase in profit despite a dip in turnover.

The sector remains the biggest employer within Suffolk Ltd, although the total of 9,088 was slightly down year-on-year.

Membership within the Services sector remained stable at 24, with joiners Cooper Lomaz Recruitment, Edison House and Aran Services replacing PR Offshore Services, Ransome’s Trading Holding Company and Transam Trucking, all for reasons of changes in turnover.

Turnover in the sector grew by 6.8% to £637m but operating profits fell by 9.3%, to £40m, largely the result of significant losses for two members which were profitable the previous year.

Recruitment specialist Sanctuary remained the biggest company in the sector, with turnover rising from £61m to £86m, buoyed by the increase in staff number and pay witnessed in other sectors.

Wage costs in the sector were 5.6% higher year-on-year, despite a small fall in the number of employees.

The Manufacturing sector declined in membership by one to 10, with Rockford Components and Marton Geotechnical Services dropping out as a result of falls in turnover and Catmj Ltd joining the list.

This reduction contributed to the sector being the only one to see a fall in turnover, down 1.1% to £207m, but in contrast operating profit grew by 8.3% to £13m with companies linked to property doing particularly well.

Success stories in terms of sales included Lignacite which grew its turnover from £15.7m to £20.9m, which was converted into profit growth of £1.4m, and Mel Aviation, which increased its turnover from just under £16m to just over £18m, with profit rising by £1.7m.

The Suffolk Limited report was launched at a breakfast event at Wherstead Park, near Ipswich, on Tuesday this week.

The launch was hosted jointly by Grant Thornton in partnership with regional law firm Birketts, with Jonathan Agar, chief executive of Birketts, presenting the findings alongside Ian Thoroughgood.

Guest speaker at the event event included Jerome Mayhew, managing director of Suffolk-based Adventure Forest Ltd which operates activity centres including the Go Ape chain of high-wire forest adventure sites.

Jerome joined Adventure Forest in 2006 as director of business development and risk, representing a complete change in career from his former occupation as a personal injury barrister. he became managing director in 2009 and alongside the rest of the team has helped grow the business from seven sites across the UK to 29, whilst minimising exposure to insured risk.

Since then the company has expanded into the US, as well as indoor trampoline parks, and has seen turnover grow from £4m to nearly £30m in 2015.

Mr Thoroughgood said: “Adventure Forest Ltd typifies the ambitious, progressive companies which help drive the Suffolk economy forward and is a great example of a local business which is successfully realising its international potential.

“For the first time this year, Suffolk Limited will also include a growth index, focusing on the county’s firms which have achieved the highest rates of growth. This is an area Jerome can certainly talk about from experience and we look forward to hearing his thoughts which will undoubtedly be both interesting and thought provoking.”

Mr Agar added: “Over the years Suffolk Limited has become a firmly recognised barometer of the overall health of the Suffolk economy and, as head of one of the county’s most successful and best known leisure companies, we are delighted Jerome will be joining us for the 2015 event.”

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