Derek Pain: It will take time to unlock profits from Cashbox

No Pain, no gain

The cash machine is a ubiquitous feature of our everyday life. All the bank branches I have seen offer a so-called hole-in-the wall, and a variety of outlets, including pubs and shops, are also happy to embrace them. Businesses still outside the loop face mounting pressure to join the cash-on-tap industry.

Even in these increasingly cashless days the number of machines continues to grow. The abolition of cheques, a proposal I do not support, is likely to further enhance their appeal. Barclays unveiled the first more than 40 years ago; now there are nearly 64,000 dotted around the land. Bank branches account for a large slice of the network but most of the recent growth has occurred elsewhere.

A good business, then, to be in. And, perhaps, a happy hunting ground for investors? Unfortunately "pure" cash machine companies are few and far between.

ATMs, as they are also known, represent a tiny slice of the huge banking turnover. Most of the other participants, ranging from the security giant G45 to the payments group Paypoint, have other substantial interests.

So the tiny Cashbox, capitalisation a mere £3.2m, represents the real cash machine investment. But the company has a poor record, and although chairman Ciaran Morton appears to be making all the right moves, he still has an uphill task ahead of him.

The shares, at 2.75p, indicate that the stock market is as yet unready to embrace the group. And with the stockbroker Seymour Pierce forecasting losses until 2012 – and then a profit of only £400,000 – there is unlikely to be any rush to buy.

The Seymour analysts Caroline de La Soujeole and Kevin Lapwood have a 5p target price. Such a level offers little encouragement to long-term shareholders who backed the 20p flotation four years ago and watched the shares subsequently hit 35p. They have since been tormented by boardroom upsets, litigation and losses approaching £11m.

The float raised £4.5m. Since then Cashbox has tapped investors for £5.3m and raised various loans. The debt pile stood at £9.9m at the end of last year, the company's interim reporting mark, when the half-time loss was £1.2m. Seymour points to continuing improvement by predicting a full-year's loss of £1.1m and looks for break-even next and then that modest profit.

Most of Cashbox's turnover stems from pay-to-use machines. But it is getting increasingly involved in ATMs where there is no charge to the consumer. Such operations can be profitable as Cashbox can extract a charge from the banks involved.

Currently no-charge machines account for only 7 per cent of the group's business. Still Mr Morton sees considerable growth on the free front. Such operations require a greater usage before matching the rewards of the pay-for-your-cash outlets. But they are usually sited in more accessible areas and, consequently, attract more users.

In the past year or so Mr Morton has signed up a number of pub estates, although the crash of the Threshers off-licence chain has obviously created problems. I am convinced that Cashbox is well on the road to recovery, but it is too early to recommend the shares on trading considerations.

As the Morton magic filters through the group could attract a predator as consolidation seems to be the name of the ATM game. But the shares are not just a takeover speculation. I intend to keep an eye on them and, if I am sufficiently encouraged by Cashbox's progress, I may well in time add them to the no pain, no gain portfolio.

From a possible recruit, to an established constituent. Whitbread, the portfolio's only Footsie stock, has issued an upbeat trading statement, with once again its Costa Coffee off-shoot the star performer, with a 35.8 per cent sales advance to £203m. Budget hotels and restaurants also contributed to the cheer.

Current stock market thinking is that the year's profits will emerge at around £235m, up from £229.9m. My guess is that expectations will be exceeded. Even if they are not, Whitbread's progress in a year of deep recession, when many thought it would suffer cruelly, has been remarkable.

Sam Hart, analyst at the stockbroker Charles Stanley, has an "accumulate" rating on the shares, which, at the time of writing, are nudging 1,500p against the 1,105p the portfolio paid in the summer of 2008.

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