Terry Murden: Wetherspoon proves there's fire without smoke in pubs

THERE is much doom and gloom in the pubs business just now, with reports that more than 730 have closed since the smoking ban was introduced into Scotland just over four years ago.

• The smoking ban has hit some Scottish pubs badly but Wetherspoon has proved it is possible to take advantage of the change in the law - and in drinkers' perceptions Picture: Getty Images

However, it is too simplistic to blame the smoking ban solely for this state of affairs. Other factors were also responsible for the decline, most probably cheaper drinks available from supermarkets. Why spend five or six pounds on a couple of pints in the pub when you can get a whole case for less?

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Clearly pubs have been having a hard time. But supermarkets aren't good places for a night out or a game of darts. Some pubs have thrived on the smoking ban, becoming more appealing to non-smokers, and most of us can name pubs that are still mobbed.

Many have also introduced innovative ideas in search of other customers. JD Wetherspoon is one such group that has boosted earnings in this way. It has extended opening hours, serving breakfasts and coffee from 7am and improving the general food menu.

As a result, pre-exception pre-tax profits rose 7 per cent to 71 million on revenues which were 4.3 per cent higher at 996m.

Finance director Keith Down is honest enough to admit that the figures were not spectacular, despite a sales figure just a few million short of a billion. That compares with the 818,000 it recorded back in 1984, showing just how far the company has come.

Analysts at Seymour Pierce note that Wetherspoon's results take on added credibility given the restoration of 17.5 per cent VAT in January and the cold winter. The company is also still talking about pub openings, rather than closures. It has designs on Scotland among the 250 planned across the UK over the next five years.

In fact, despite the gloomy prognosis for pubs, most of the big groups have been reporting growth, albeit warning that the outlook remains uncertain. As such Wetherspoon shares are probably a decent hold.

Elop must do a Steve Jobs and lift 'struggling' Nokia

NOKIA - not only the name of a mobile phone company but a word synonymous with Finland and the country's ability to create a global brand.

It became the envy of other small countries, including Scotland, which sought a similarly iconic company that would represent worldwide corporate success.

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But all is not well in the Nordic state. A company that once dominated the mobile market is facing up to the twin challenge from its North American rivals, Apple and Research in Motion, whose iPhone and Blackberry devices have grabbed a growing share of the profits at the top of the smartphone market. It has left Nokia battling it out at the commodity end. Nokia is not in trouble, but it is clearly anxious about trends in the market and has done what most companies do when facing a dilemma: it has replaced its chief executive.

Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo's future had been the subject of speculation since April amid rumours of unrest among the top executives. Now he's gone, succeeded by Microsoft's business division head Stephen Elop.

Canadian Elop is expected to perform a "Steve Jobs" type of transformation on Nokia, lifting the company out of its gloom and restoring it back to full fitness. Yet this is a crisis that would not bother too many companies: it remains the world's biggest seller of mobiles, including smartphones.

But its rivals are nibbling away at the high-end margins and it has struggled for years in the US where it has failed to gain a big enough foothold among customers and the major carriers such as AT&T and Verizon Wireless.

Elop knows the company cannot rest on its laurels unless he wants to oversee a steady erosion of its previously unchallenged position at the top of the mobile tree.

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