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Intertek is just the kind of business one would expect to see flourishing in the wake of COVID-19.

One of the lesser-known companies in the FTSE 100, in spite of having a stock market valuation of £9bn, it is the world’s biggest provider of quality assurance.

It employs nearly 44,000 people around the world in more than 1,000 offices and laboratories, providing assurance, testing, inspection and certification services to clients in sectors as wide-ranging as chemicals, food, healthcare, transportation, energy and construction.

Globally, an estimated $12trillion is now invested in index funds
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The firm went public in 2002 and joined the top-flight index in 2009

On Friday morning it reported a 23% rise in pre-tax profits, to £186.3m, for the six months to the end of June.

However, despite what appeared to be a confident trading update, the company’s share price plunged by more than 9% at one point – wiping £849m from its stock market value.

So what went wrong?

In a word, it seems that expectations were just a little too high.

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According to Oscar Val Mas, analyst at investment bank JP Morgan Cazenove, underlying earnings came in 7% lower than the market had been expecting and noted that the company had not changed its guidance to investors on profit margins for the year.

Steve Clayton, manager of the HL Select UK Growth Shares fund, which owns shares in Intertek, added: “These interim (results) were always going to be a tough act for Intertek to pull off.

“Demand has been highly volatile and only relatively recently translated into robust growth.

“But expectations for Intertek’s ability to translate any recovery into higher (profit) margins were high.

“So far, the group is lagging a little on the margin front, even though pretty much all parts of the business are now seeing demand bouncing back.

“Full year forecasts are likely to edge down, so no surprise to see the market pushing the stock lower.”

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Expectations were too high and the market pushed stock lower

It is a rare setback for a company which, since going public in 2002 and joining the Footsie in 2009, has been a stock market darling.

It has a strong track record of growing both via takeovers and organically and also of predicting accurately what its customers will be demanding next.

Yet Andre Lacroix, the chief executive, insisted today he was confident demand will keep growing and said the company had “exciting growth opportunities” in the post-COVID-19 environment.

He told analysts today: “The total value of the global product assurance market is $250bn.

“Only $50bn of this is outsourced.

“Given the increased complexity in global corporations, we expect companies to continue to invest in new quality assurance areas to mitigate risk in the supply chain.

“These are what we call untapped quality assurance opportunities. And, indeed, COVID-19 has demonstrated there were major risks in the operations of our clients, which were not all mitigated.

“We expect the increased focus on quality assurance essentially in three areas moving forward – safer supply chain, better personal safety and sustainability.

“And this is why the industry is expected to grow faster post-COVID-19.”

Andre Lacroix
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Intertek boss Andre Lacroix is a former chairman and chief executive of Euro Disney

Mr Lacroix, who joined in May 2015 from Inchcape – coincidentally the company from which Intertek was spun out of 25 years ago – said a recent survey of customers had revealed that 87% of them were planning to invest in the next two years to strengthen their supply chains.

He said that recent shortages in supply around the world – a good example currently being how shortage in chips is hampering car production around the world – had highlighted the need for supply chains to be more resilient.

He went on: “We need to ensure health, safety and well-being for employees and consumers. COVID-19 has raised the bar for health and safety in public and factories and workplaces forever.

“And they all face higher operational complexity, which is driven by the explosion of e-commerce and, of course, the ever-faster innovation cycle.”

One area where investors appear to be concerned, in the immediate term, is inflation.

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As firms put net zero plans in place, Intertek will have a vital role to play, say experts

Intertek employs a lot of specialist and highly-qualified people, such as scientists with PhDs, while it also has a policy of giving employees pay rises every year.

The expectation is that it will be seeing a high level of wage inflation.

Mr Lacroix insisted that this was not the case – pointing out that, when lots of businesses were undergoing large restructurings with a lot of redundancies during the pandemic, Intertek had deliberately not gone down that road.

He went on: “To basically reduce our capability and then start hiring again was going to be very costly and not the right thing from a customer service standpoint.

“So we are not seeing any issues with shortages of labour. We have to hire, we do it all the time, but we don’t have a huge gap in our capability.”

He said the company would be quite capable of returning to its pre-pandemic productivity level without having to take on more employees.

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And there could be another big growth opportunity in coming years, too.

As Mr Clayton put it: “There is a quiet revolution going on in business, as firms start to put net zero plans into place.

“Intertek has a vital role to play here, with its ability to provide quality assurance of supply chains and audits of key environmental performance data.

“In short, there are whole new markets opening up for the business and the shares should increasingly recognise the potential of these opportunities, as well as the issues the existing business faces day to day.”

So, a tough day for Mr Lacroix, a former chairman and chief executive of Euro Disney.

But, once the dust has settled, he has plenty of opportunities to prove to sceptics that his company’s prospects are anything but Mickey Mouse.

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London-listed SPAC targets merger with chronic disease drug developer Istesso

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London-listed SPAC targets merger with chronic disease drug developer Istesso

The first “blank cheque” company to list in London after an overhaul aimed at helping the City compete with rival financial centres is in talks to merge with a privately owned drugs group developing treatments for chronic diseases.

Sky News has learnt that Hambro Perks Acquisition Company (HPAC) is in advanced negotiations about a deal, which could be announced within weeks.

If successfully completed, the merger would represent a milestone for the London stock market even as scores of so-called special purpose acquisition companies (SPACs) – predominantly in New York – are being wound up following a slump in valuations.

City sources said on Saturday that HPAC had been in discussions with Istesso for some time.

A merger would value the company at several hundred million pounds, although a more precise valuation could not be ascertained this weekend.

Founded in 2017, Istesso focuses on an area of medicine called immunometabolism, and is developing treatments for severe diseases such as arthritis and multiple sclerosis.

Several of its products have reached Phase-II trials, with others at an earlier stage of development.

One biotech analyst who is familiar with Istesso’s work said the business appeared to have significant growth potential.

Istesso is majority-owned by IP Group, the London-listed company which focuses on commercialising intellectual property across sectors such as energy and healthcare.

Last week, IP Group named Anita Kidgell, head of corporate strategy at the FTSE-100 pharmaceuticals giant GSK, as a non-executive director.

The SPAC was the brainchild of Hambro Perks, a London-based venture capital firm which holds stakes in dozens of early-stage companies such as What3Words, the geolocation start-up, and Tide, the business bank.

It is chaired by Sir Anthony Salz, the former Rothschild banker and City lawyer.

Dominic Perks, Hambro Perks’ co-founder, said at the time of HPAC’S listing in November 2021 that he had decided to list the vehicle in London in the wake of rule changes which meant the City could compete more robustly with New York and Amsterdam.

The SPAC, which raised nearly £150m from its initial public offering, had 15 months to secure a deal, meaning it faces a deadline next month to announce the merger or seek an extension from shareholders.

Hambro Perks has substantial experience of healthcare investment, having backed start-ups including Aide, a digital health service which helps patients manage chronic conditions, Genomics, a genetics-based drugs group, and Akamis Bio, a clinical-stage oncology company.

The SPAC boom in the US triggered the arrival on the public markets of dozens of companies, including Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit,

A string of UK companies, including Babylon Health and Cazoo, the online car retailer, have merged with SPACs and subsequently seen their valuations plummet.

Rothschild is advising the Hambro Perks SPAC on the deal, while Istesso is being advised by Panmure Gordon.

HPAC and IP Group have both been contacted for comment.

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Flybe customers urged not to go to airport as carrier collapses and cancels all flights

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Flybe customers urged not to go to airport as carrier collapses and cancels all flights

Passengers due to travel with Flybe have been told not to go to the airport after the regional carrier ceased trading and all flights were cancelled.

The airline has gone into administration less than a year after returning to the skies following a previous collapse.

Ticket-holders were advised to check the Civil Aviation Authority website for further information or if they had booked through an intermediary to contact the relevant agent.

Flybe operated scheduled services from Belfast, Birmingham and Heathrow to airports across the UK and to Amsterdam and Geneva.

In a statement posted on its Twitter account, the airline said: “We are sad to announce that Flybe has been placed into administration.

“David Pike and Mike Pink of Interpath have been appointed administrators.

“Regretfully, Flybe has now ceased trading.

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“All Flybe flights from and to the UK are cancelled and will not be rescheduled.”

CAA consumer director Paul Smith said: “It is always sad to see an airline enter administration and we know that Flybe’s decision to stop trading will be distressing for all of its employees and customers.

“We urge passengers planning to fly with this airline not to go to the airport as all Flybe flights are cancelled.

“For the latest advice, Flybe customers should visit the Civil Aviation Authority’s website or our Twitter feed for more information.”

A government spokesman said: “This remains a challenging environment for airlines, both old and new, as they recover from the pandemic, and we understand the impact this will have on Flybe’s passengers and staff.

“Our immediate priority is to support people travelling home and employees who have lost their jobs,” a spokesperson said.

“The Civil Aviation Authority is providing advice to passengers to help them make their journeys as smoothly and affordably as possible.

“The majority of destinations served by Flybe are within the UK with alternative transport arrangements available.

“We recognise that this is an uncertain time for affected employees and their families.

“Jobcentre Plus, through its Rapid Response Service, stands ready to support any employee affected.”

Flybe had previously been pushed into administration in March 2020 with the loss of 2,400 jobs as the COVID-19 pandemic battered large parts of the travel market.

Its business and assets were purchased in 2021 by Thyme Opco, which is linked to US hedge fund Cyrus Capital.

Thyme Opco was renamed Flybe Limited.

It had been based at Birmingham Airport.

On the resumption of its flying operations last April, it planned to operate up to 530 flights a week across 23 routes, serving airports such as Belfast City, Birmingham, East Midlands, Glasgow, Heathrow and Leeds Bradford.

Have you been affected by the collapse of Flybe? Have the flight cancellations ruined your plans?

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Government homes in on £5bn cladding settlement with housebuilders

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Government homes in on £5bn cladding settlement with housebuilders

Michael Gove, the levelling up secretary, is closing in on a multibillion pound deal with Britain’s biggest housebuilders to help resolve the national cladding crisis exposed by the 2017 Grenfell Tower disaster.

Sky News has learnt that major companies including Barratt Developments and Persimmon are preparing for the imminent signing of a legally binding contract with the government that could ultimately cost the industry £5bn or more.

One executive said they expected the final contract to be signed and unveiled as soon as next week, although they cautioned that the timing remained fluid.

Last year, dozens of developers signed a pledge to fix buildings constructed since the early 1990s, with revisions to the deal with government in recent weeks having focused on the scope of companies’ exposure.

The City watchdog is thought to have been involved in discussions with the industry about whether signing the contract would require the approval of shareholders in listed companies such as Barratt, Persimmon and Taylor Wimpey.

Sources have estimated the cost of the new Residential Property Developers Tax at up to £3bn and the bill for self-remediation at around £2bn.

A further tax on the industry could raise £3bn, industry executives have concluded, leading some companies and investors to warn that the sector risks seeing a flight of capital.

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Earlier this month, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said it was “finalising the legally binding contracts that developers will sign to fix their unsafe buildings, and expect them to do so very soon.

“We will not accept any backsliding on their commitments.

“It is building owners’ legal responsibility to make sure that all buildings are safe.”

Albert House, Woolwich, London, which has cladding that since the Grenfell disaster has been deemed un-safe
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Many buildings across the UK have been deemed to have unsafe cladding since the Grenfell Tower disaster in 2017

FTSE-100 housebuilders have already taken significant financial provisions in their accounts to prepare for the signing of the final government contract.

Some have flagged during recent earnings calls with analysts that they expected an imminent settlement.

“In signing the pledge, we’re saying that we essentially had a commitment that we wanted to sign up to the legal agreement,” David Thomas, Barratt’s chief executive, told analysts this month.

” There’s been a process of discussion regarding the legal agreement that has been ongoing since June last year, so we think we’re getting close to the government publishing the legal agreement, and we would expect in due course that we would sign up to that.”

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Grenfell inquiry finds shoddy workmanship and unsafe cladding

Homebuilders pledge to pay £5bn towards fire safety costs

Hanan says she still thinks of the tower as home
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The cladding on Grenfell Tower was found to have caused the fire to spread so quickly

A spokesman for the Home Builders Federation (HBF) said: “The pledge [signed last year] demonstrated the industry’s commitment to play its part in ensuring leaseholders don’t pay for work needed to make buildings safe.

“We have been working constructively with government to ensure the detailed contract reflects the commitments of the pledge and we await a final version.

“UK housebuilders are taking responsibility and are well progressed with remediating their own buildings and are already paying another £3bn to fund work on buildings built by foreign companies and others.

“Government now needs to deliver on commitments to secure contributions from foreign builders and the material providers at the heart of this issue and avoid targeting UK housebuilders further for buildings built by others”.

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