Daily Mail

First Group’s £500m boost for investors

- By Calum Muirhead

First Group, one of the UK’s largest train and bus operators, has confirmed plans to hand back £500m to shareholde­rs.

In a trading update ahead of its AGM, the Aberdeen-based firm, which runs four rail franchises including Avanti West Coast and around a fifth of local bus services, said it will plan to return as much of the cash as possible by buying back shares, with any remaining sum to be paid through a special dividend. The bumper payout was first announced in July after the company raked in £2.3bn from the sale of its US transport and school bus businesses.

First also said the number of passengers riding its buses had reached 65pc of pre-pandemic levels in recent weeks, a figure it expected to rise further as schools and universiti­es returned for the autumn term. It added that overall trading in the year to date had been in line with expectatio­ns.

‘With a well-capitalise­d balance sheet and an operating model that will support an attractive dividend for shareholde­rs commencing in 2022, I am confident that First

Group is well-placed to deliver sustainabl­e value creation,’ said chairman David Martin.

Martin might be optimistic about the company’s prospects, but his own were put into sharp focus by the AGM results.

Just over 20pc of votes cast were against his re-election to the board, while board director Warwick Brady had the same pushback. The votes are not binding – but follow a campaign by its largest investor, activist group Coast Capital, which believes the two are ill-suited to the company.

First Group shares rose 3.2pc, or 2.8p, to 89.3p.

The FtsE 100 climbed 0.6pc, or 39.23 points, to 7098.43 during the session, while the FtsE 250 added

0.2pc, or 42.17 points, to 23775.73. The mood seemed positive, however, the outlook was bleaker among profession­als in a Deutsche Bank survey, 58pc of whom expected stock markets to fall between 5pc and 10pc before the end of the year, while 10pc predicted the drop could be even bigger.

Metal markets were also in focus as prices of aluminium hit a 13year high of $3,000 (£2,171) a tonne as China tightened output controls on the metal, which is used to make drinks cans and aircraft parts. A military coup in Guinea has also raised concerns about the availabili­ty of bauxite, a key ingredient in aluminium production.

Meanwhile, oil prices climbed to their highest levels since late July, with Brent crude rising 0.7pc to more than $73 a barrel as the damage from Hurricane Ida continued to dent US production.

Oil major BP was up 2.3pc, or 6.65p, at 302.3p while rival shell rose 2.2pc, or 31.8p, to 1456.6p.

Abcam, which supplies research tools to scientists, reported that it had swung to a £10.3m profit in the six months to the end of June from a £16.1m loss in the same period last year as lab activity continued to recover to pre-pandemic levels. However, the shares dropped 3.2pc, or 48p, to 1470p as the company warned foreign exchange headwinds were expected to weigh on revenue growth going forward.

Podcast network Audioboom slumped 3.5pc, or 30p, to 830p after private equity firm All Active Asset Capital withdrew its takeover offer, saying the company’s management had ‘ignored the wishes of shareholde­rs’ by not engaging with the proposal.

Audioboom itself issued an upbeat trading update, saying revenues for 2021 will be significan­tly ahead of previous expectatio­ns.

In the risers, FTSE250 exhibition organiser Ascential ticked up 0.9pc, or 3.6p to 417.4p as it said it had purchased Onespace, a company that helps brands increase sales online.

Logistics firm Wincanton rose 0.5pc, or 2p, to 384p as it unveiled plans to buy Cygnia Logistics, a provider of supply chain services for the likes of Brewdog, Moonpig and Molton Brown, for £23.9m.

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