Freightways' first-quarter profitability was flat as the express delivery company continued to be shackled by the sluggish economy. Managing director Dean Bracewell told shareholders at the annual meeting in Auckland yesterday that operating earnings for the three months to September 30 were up by 4 per cent. But higher interest rate costs meant net profit was flat at $7.7 million, he said.
Mr Bracewell declined to comment on mounting takeover speculation. Freightways, which shares the New Zealand express package market with NZ Post in a near-duopoly, has long been touted as a likely takeover target. Suggestions that Toll Holdings might launch a bid have been around for a couple of years. This month, the Australian Financial Review reported that as well as Toll, Qantas, FedEx and Deutsche Post's DHL were interested.
"I have no doubt that it's on at least a couple of companies' radar screens," First NZ Capital analyst Andrew Mortimer said. "I certainly wouldn't discount it but it's a question of timing. It's got an open register and it's vulnerable."
Mr Bracewell said he saw no short-term let-up in the challenging New Zealand conditions. "We said at the full-year we expected a flat environment and that's what we've got," he said. "It will come back; it always does. And when it does we'll be ready with good-quality capacity and we'll reap the benefits of it then, but I couldn't put a time frame on that."
At close the Freightways share price was down 15 cents at $3.80.
Growth in the business mail and information management businesses continued to outpace the core express business, Mr Bracewell said. Capital investment of $15 million would be spent during the 2008 year including the initial development of a recently acquired information management site in Wellington.
Freightways' largest shareholder is Fisher Funds, which has a 9.8 per cent stake. Fisher Funds chief investment officer Warren Couillault said Freightways was doing well relative to the conditions it was operating in. "It does feel to me that the underlying barometer of the economy, in moving freight around the country, has been weak for about a year and a half," he said. "The fact that they're holding their bottom line is good, given that they've got huge cost increases in labour, occupancy and energy. "The little nibbling acquisitions they are making in data and storage are good as well. That will give them a springboard in Australia and it's exactly what we want them to be doing."
Directors Sue Sheldon and Sir William Birch were re-elected to the board at the meeting. Directors' fees were increased from $225,000 to $336,000. This includes $52,000 to be available if a sixth director, likely to be an Australian, is added to the board.