Heartstone Inns, the South of England-based pub operator, has said it has the firepower for further growth following a year in which saw like-for-like sales increase 3%.

In the year ended December 2017 the group saw a 7% increase in sales to £10.3m, with an 8% increase in Pub EBITDA to £1.9m.

The group ended the year with 15 pubs - 14 of which are freehold – after adding the Two Brewers in Somerset. In March 2018 the company added a further freehold public house, The Hunters Inn in Hampshire, to its estate.

The company reported an operating margin of 18.4% compared to 18.2% in 2016 and 16.6% in 2015. It paid a dividend of £0.025 per share for 2017, double the previous year’s.

Heartstone invested £1.7m in the estate in 2017. In addition to acquiring The Two Brewers the company also completed extensive developments at The Bun Penny in Hampshire and at The Walhampton Arms in Hampshire along with several smaller projects across the estate. The 50 seat Victoria Room extension was added to The Bun Penny whilst The Walhampton received an extensive refurbishment.

So far this year the group has completed major development projects at The Anchor Inn in Monmouthshire, The Bathurst Arms in Gloucestershire and at The King Alfred (formerly The Two Brewers) in Somerset.

The group said: “We have a number of exciting development opportunities across the estate that we intend to progress over the next 12 to 36 months.”

Managing director James Birch said: “We are delighted to have delivered a strong set of results and year-on-year growth in 2017. Over the years we have created an estate of high quality food led pubs which continue to grow and to perform well. The company has a strong balance sheet with plenty of firepower to fund further growth and we are pleased to be rewarding our shareholders with an increasing flow of dividend payments, a strategy we intend to continue in future years. Already in 2018 we have completed the purchase of The Hunters Inn, our 15th freehold pub along with completing sizeable development projects at three of our pubs.”