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H&T looking to build online presence

Where other pawnbroking businesses have fallen away amid changing market conditions and a lower gold price, H&T Group (LON:HAT) has emerged relatively unscarred.
H&T looking to build online presence
HAT has been in business for more than a century..

Where other pawnbroking businesses have fallen away amid changing market conditions and a lower gold price, H&T Group (LON:HAT) has emerged relatively unscarred.

Indeed, its recent year end-update suggested the beginnings of a turnaround and potential growth ahead, with positive news on the firm's stabilising pledge book and a debt position, which was better than analysts had expected.

The pledge book increased by 1.3% to £39mln as at the end of 2015 compared to £38.5mln at the end of 2014.

Cash generation was strong in the year and resulted in net debt at year end of £2.1mln (2014: £9.7m).

The company  expects full year profit before tax for 2015 to be broadly in line with current market expectations.

Boss John Nichols told Proactive Investors he was pleased with the results.

"We have seen improvements in all our lending streams. What I'm not so certain of is the trajectory - or how it's now going to grow," he said.

H&T, over 100 years old, is a simple business to understand, with pawnbroking lending as its core, accounting for around 60% of revenues.

Much of the reason for its success and survival has been a willingness to branch out into other areas, such as personal loans, foreign exchange and retail, and Nichols expects this diversity to continue to get results.

The group established its est1897 Discount Secondhand Jewellers brand 18 months ago and now has 39 stores (of a wider estate of 189 units), selling quality second hand jewellery shops on the High Street.

"I think we can do much better (with est1897) and link it in more particularly with our online offering," he told Proactive, meaning people will be able to look on the internet and order jewellery to be delivered to a store or at home.

A split between bricks and clicks, he explained.

Though late to the e-commerce party, Nichols says H&T is now catching up, although concedes it’s an area, which comes at an investment cost.

However, with a £50mln banking facility and £2.1mln in debt, that shouldn't be too much of a problem.

Another area of growth has been in the group's "buyback" division, underlining an evolving market, where notably 18-24 year-olds have been cashing in electrical items and mobile phones, which helped a 30% rise in group profits in 2015's first half.

Indeed, the group is seeing increasing transactions involving small electrical goods for small amounts of money.

After all, it has been  an over-exposure to gold, the price of which then dropped off the cliff, which caused many of H&T’s competitors (Albermarle & Bond (LON:ABM) being an obvious example) to go to the wall.

But more gold demand now can only be good for the firm, says Nichols.

"It's a cyclical thing. If you've got more gold out in the population, the more opportunity there is to lend against it," he said.

Recent personal debt figures for the UK underline how there is a continuing demand for credit, and as Nichols points out in a society seemingly built on consumerism, for many decades people have been encouraged to borrow.

"There's always been a demand for credit and not just the middle band that have got credit cards," he pointed out.

City broker Numis rates the shares 'add' and has a target price of 225p against a current price of around 197p.

".. with the pledge book now appearing to have troughed, debt well-controlled, initiatives in place to support progress, and an improving competitive outlook, we retain our positive recommendation," it said in a note.

Shares are at 193p valuing the firm at around £71.4mln.

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