Countrywide has lost nearly two thirds of its value today after the embattled estate agent group made a call for emergency funds.
Britain’s biggest estate agent group said it hopes to tap investors for £140million to help service its mounting debts and keep the firm afloat, following four profit warnings in the last eight months.
Alongside dismal half-year results today, the Hamptons International and Bairstow Eves owner said it will attempt to raise the much-needed funds through a heavily discounted share placing and open offer held later this month.
Countrywide owns over 50 estate agent brands, including Bairstow Eves
If successful, the cash would reduce Countrywide’s net debt, which currently stands at around £200million, by 60 per cent. But, as was flagged by an auditor in the statement, failure to raise the funds will cast more doubt on the firm’s future.
‘The effect on the group of any failure to implement the capital refinancing plan may also be compounded by factors outside of the group’s control, such as a further downturn in the UK housing market or conditions adversely impacting the UK mortgage market,’ it added.
The warning triggered a rapid fall in Countrywide’s shares, which toppled a dramatic 64 per cent in morning trading.
The chart shows the extent of Countrywide’s share price crash in early trading – down 64%
Its share price was already in the doldrums, down 70 per cent over the last year, as the firm grappled with a number of challenges, including a slowing housing market and the cost of over-expansion.
Its shares have been on a steady decline and are down 70% over the last year
Adding salt to the wound, the announcement accompanied poor first-half results, in which the group said it swung to a pre-tax loss of £242.8million in the first half of the year, compared with a profit of £192,000 a year earlier. Group sales also slid 9 per cent to £303.6million.
Countrywide tried to reassure investors that the group’s results would ‘benefit from an improved sales pipeline’ in its typically stronger second half.
The company added that it has made ‘significant progress’ in building up its industry expertise and staffing levels, though headcount across its central operations has been slashed by a third.
It comes amid fears that Countrywide chairman Peter Long is too stretched to oversee the troubled firm as he has been busy firefighting at another crisis-hit company he chairs, Royal Mail.
Some 34 per cent of Royal Mail investors opposed Long’s re-election at this month’s AGM, over claims of ‘overboarding’, where a director takes on too many jobs.
Countrywide is the UK’s biggest estate agent group, but its is not the only one struggling in the challenging environment. Foxtons flagged tough conditions earlier this week
AJ Bell investment director Russ Mould warned today that ‘investors should be very wary’.
‘As a traditional operator, rather than a disruptive web-based rival like Purplebricks, Countrywide has lots of fixed costs relating to estate agency branches and staff which cannot immediately be taken out in response to weakening demand. In other words, it has high operational gearing,’ he said.
‘And, unlike its London-focused rival Foxtons, it also has lots of debt making it financially geared too.
‘This creates a double whammy for the business as a softer property market has put a lot of pressure on the bottom line and made it increasingly difficult for it to service its borrowings.’