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Serco's Profits Decline Following its Annus Horribilis

Serco announced its 2013 results this week including:

  • Revenue £4,288.1m up +5.6%, up +6.7% at constant currency (CC)
  • Operating profit was £143.8m, a margin of 3.4%, down 330 bps

The decline in profits was anticipated with a warning given by the company to this effect only a few weeks ago. In this period, Serco reported a net exceptional charge of £90.5m, reflecting principally the Electronic Monitoring settlement and one-off costs, together with an estimated £21.0m of other indirect costs in relation to the UK Government reviews.

As forecast by the company in its H1 announcements, growth slowed down, in H2 2013. In fact it halved.

Contract wins in H2 2013 included an ITO contract extension for the EU and an FM contract with the Canadian defense. But BPO contract wins completely dried up in H2 2013. This perhaps reflects the problems of Serco’s Global Services division which was most impacted by the electronic monitoring debacle, reporting -350bps decline in operating margin.

Serco admits that clients did not want to talk to it until the issues had been resolved. New contracts have started to come in once again (such as the Lincolnshire Council contract) since Serco settled the matter with the U.K. government.

Apart from the MoJ expenses, divisional margin came under pressure from upfront expenditure on existing contracts. These included:

  • A ~£15m working capital investment in transformation for Shop Direct in 2013 and further anticipated but smaller outflow in 2014. Returns are expected to begin from the contract in year 3 (FY15).
  • Suffolk Community Healthcare redundancy cash costs of c£5m; no effect expected in 2014.  

It has not been an easy year for Serco in some of its international businesses either. In Australia, a change of government and policy has resulted in revenue attrition in its contract with the Department of Immigration and Citizenship for which Serco runs a number of detention centers.

In America, the outlook remains uncertain due to Federal funding challenges around programmes and contracts, but Serco has won a number of new contracts in the region, including the $1.25bn 5-year federal Eligibility Support (ES) contract by the United States Department of Health and Human Services' Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) but this is likely to be at relatively low margin.

Serco has done well to achieve topline growth despite its annus horribilis. 2014 will be a year of repair and rebuild for Serco. The new CEO, Rupert Soames, and a number of new non-executive board appointees, are likely to go to start with a major review of the business. Serco's strategy of diversification should help with this activity, providing it with a broad set of options for rebuilding the business.

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