Marston’s, the brewer and pub operator, has this morning reported a 13.5% drop in full year pre-tax profit to £70.3m, but said that it was encouraged by the start to the new year. The company said that its 500-strong managed arm saw like-for-like sales grow 3.1% in the first eight weeks of the new year ended 28 November 2009, with sales up 5.3% and drink sales rising 1.6%. During the same eight week start to the year, Marston’s Pub Company reported like-for-like profits of 5% below last year and it said that Marston’s Beer Company was performing in line with expectations. Posting results for the full year to 3 October 2009, the group reported operating profit down 5.7% to £147.4m reflecting the weaker performance of Marston’s Pub Company. Marston’s Inns and Taverns full-year LFLs fell 0.6%, but the company said that performance improved steadily throughout the year after a weak first quarter and in the last nine weeks, LFLs rose 2.7% including food sales up 5.7% and drink sales up 1%. Underlying operating profit dropped 6.5% to £60.3m and the average profit per pub increased from £117,000 to £120,000. The company said that growth was being driven by its accelerated new-build programme and that after raising £165.6m through a rights issue it would invest £140m in 15 pubs set to open in 2010, with a further 45 planned over the following two years. Marston’s Pub Company, the group’s tenanted and leased estate, saw underlying operating profit fall 7% to £81.8m including £3m of additional support costs for licensees, with average profit per pub down from £51,000 to £48,000. The company said that it had introduced a programme to improve trading in weaker pubs and would invest £5m in the weakest 20% of its estate in 2010. Marston’s Beer Company recorded a 3.9% decline in underlying operating profit to £16m and own brewed beer volumes up 8%. The group plans to accelerate it openings for Marston's Inns from 2010 after having opened four new sites in 2009. It sold 70 properties during the year, realising book values and generating cash of £26m. Marston’s recorded a total property impairment charge of £68m for the year and said that it had also recognised an exceptional charge of £12.9m for onerous leases, mainly related to town centre leasehold sites. It had net debt of £1.09bn at 3 October 2009, a reduction of £168m compared to £1.26bn at 4 October 2008, principally as a result of its rights issue. Ralph Findlay, chief executive, said: "This was a creditable performance in a very challenging period. In addition, the improvement in trading we experienced over the second half-year has continued in recent weeks, and we have made an encouraging start to the new financial year. "Although we are cautious about predicting recovery, we have good pubs and popular regional ales which are performing well. We have a strong platform to make further progress over the coming year."