Chairman's AGM updating statement
07 May 2003
Trading in the early months of 2003 has been affected by contrasting weather patterns across our various operations. Although the impact has on balance been adverse, we would hope that the effects will equalise as we move into the main construction seasons in our various markets.
In Ireland, the trends in construction demand evident in the second half of 2002 have continued to date in 2003 boosted by the favourable Irish weather conditions of recent months. Residential construction remains buoyant and, combined with good levels of infrastructural activity, has resulted in strong volume increases for the first four months of 2003, despite a weak backdrop for commercial and industrial construction.
In Britain, overall construction activity levels to date are broadly in line with the same period last year. Although Ibstock Brick volumes are slightly behind last year, good price increases are being achieved. Residential demand in Northern Ireland is good, however, the anticipated benefits from increased road maintenance work have been slow to materialise.
In Mainland Europe, trading patterns have been mixed. An exceptionally cold first quarter in Northern Europe adversely impacted our Materials Division activities in the Polish and Finnish markets. However, our Swiss operations experienced normal seasonal demand while volumes in Spain have remained strong in an increasingly competitive market. In the Products and Distribution Division, our concrete, clay and building products activities continue to be affected by general weakness in residential and commercial markets in the Benelux, France and Germany. Our Distribution operations have started the year well, supported by good demand and margin improvement in our DIY retailing operations in the Benelux.
In North America, traditionally low early season activity levels for the Materials Division were reduced by severe snowfalls throughout the Northeast and Midwest, offset somewhat by milder than usual conditions in the West. The main construction season for the Materials Division is just now getting underway with management strongly focussed on mitigating the impact of higher key energy-related costs on our performance for the year as a whole. Our Products and Distribution Division was also affected by poor weather which restricted both residential and non-residential construction activity and product shipments. While there are continuing uncertainties, underlying residential and infrastructure demand look reasonable although the outlook for non-residential activity remains weak.
To date in 2003 we have completed acquisitions totalling €285 million, comprising 14 deals across our operations. With a robust cash flow and a strong balance sheet, we will continue to grow the Group through internal development and acquisitions but only where we see value and good strategic fit.
While recent weeks have seen the normal seasonal pick up in activity and some moderation in energy costs, markets are likely to remain difficult for the immediate future. We aim to offset the effect of this through our continuing strong focus on cost control, efficiency improvements, the recovery of higher input costs and an active development programme. However, recent currency trends, in particular the weaker US$ which impacts the translation of our US profits into euro, make this more challenging.