by Mike Bennett A "year of excellent progress" for Spirit Group will fuel further speculation that a major acquisition or merger is increasingly on the cards. Industry-watchers will have noted that fourth-quarter results could hardly have been more positive for a company that now runs 1,035 pubs. It's not, though, expected that the managed house operator will be in a hurry to float on the London stock exchange. Instead, a marriage with Laurel or a buy-out of the Six Continents pubs and bars portfolio are considered more feasible options. Pre-tax profits soared by 24.8% to £30.5m during the past three trading months, leading toan impressive full-year figure of £117.9m. And total like-for-like sales across the estate were up by 6.6% in the quarter and 7.2% annually. The fact that the venture capital-backed group was investing £3.4m during the final quarter period and wasn't required to repay any debt were both being taken as highly positive signs. "We are delighted with the results we are seeing from the three areas of operation within our estate namely our very successful investment concepts [Q's, Two For One and Bar Room Bar], our unbranded locals, and our food-led pubs," commented chief executive Karen Jones.