Are the nightmares over for the gruesome twosome?

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The Independent Online

In early summer I drew attention to two long-time stock market casualties - Availeon and Fastrack - a pair of investment nightmares with particularly wretched records.

In early summer I drew attention to two long-time stock market casualties - Availeon and Fastrack - a pair of investment nightmares with particularly wretched records.

Since then this gruesome twosome have continued their endeavours to put their pasts behind them and emerge blinking into the bright sunshine which accompanies profitable investments.

Availeon, a catering group, is suspended while it negotiates what it calls "a substantial acquisition", in effect a reverse takeover; Fastrack, a delivery group, is also involved in whatis undoubtedly a highly significant deal, but its shares are still traded.

As I dwelt at some length on Availeon and Fastrack in the summer, I feel I should provide updates because the activities of small companies are frequently ignored; consequently, little has been written about their respective bids to become more viable operations.

Availeon, suspended at 3p, offers no real clue about the identity of its possible buy; Fastrack does name its target - Ontime, a domestic parcel delivery and international freight-forwarding service.

Before revealing its possible deal in September, Availeon managed to run true to form - producing yet another loss: £964,000 in the year to March against £737,000 the previous year. It has yet to make a profit since it came to the stock market six years ago.

The company has changed directions several times. At one time it was a butcher and cooked-meats processor. The present management has moved it into contract catering and, although these are early days, there are signs a recipe for growth has at last been found.

Jeremy Long, drafted in as chairman earlier this year, seemed relatively upbeat in his first yearly statement to shareholders but clearly much depends on the proposed reverse takeover coming to fruition. I would be surprised if Availeon's current operations move out of the red in the current year, running to theend of March.

Fastrack, in the half-year to end June, delivered a £1.6m loss. It did make a profit of £75,000 in 1998. But that was a false dawn. In the following year the loss was more than £2m and, all told, losses of more than £20m have been suffered in the past six years. Indeed but for thelong-time - and generous - support of funds managed by the Bulldog Partnersfund-management group, the delivery service would already be on the road to nowhere.

The Bulldog group has more than half of the company's capital and is still pumping cash into the business.

It is the Ontime deal that could transform Fastrack. Ontime is being acquired from Jacobs, a property, shipping and transport group created by Michael Kingshott, the man best known for being a co-founder of Sally Ferries.

Fastrack is paying for Ontime in shares. It is clearly strapped for cash and makes ominous noises about the difficulties it would face if the Jacobs deal, which also includes a cash injection, is not completed. The Bulldog funds are also putting more cash into the group. As a result Jacobs will have 33.6 per cent of Fastrack and could lift its stake to 49.5 per cent. Bulldog will have 40.8 per cent and could go to 48 per cent.

Mr Kingshott is joining the Fastrack board as anon-executive director. He has transformed Jacobs from an old tanker broker since arriving six years ago. It has not been an easy passage. At one time profits hit £8.3m. But last year they fell to £2.6m and this year the group has warned of a possible loss.

So Jacobs shares, 88.75p a year ago, are now bumping along at 35.5p after touching 31.5p.

The benefits of merging Ontime with Fastrack's delivery services should be substantial. Fastrack operates from 51 locations; Ontime, which lost £5.4m last year, trades from 26 sites. For the Jacobs and Bulldog deals, Fastrack shares were valued at 7.75p; they are now at 8p.

Even with the help of Jacobs the group still faces a long, hard haul. The need for business-to-business express delivery services is acute; and home delivery is a growing activity. But trading conditions are highly competitive.

Clearly in investment terms Fastrack has, so far, failed to deliver. With the Jacobs dealand the continuing support of the Bulldog funds, it could now be on the right road. But its shares are certainly not for the proverbial widows and orphans - only for hardened investors who relish a gamble.

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