Private Investor: I'm at home with a celebrity kitchen maker

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The Independent Online

I have always wondered what the point of a fitted kitchen is. Most of the ones that I have come across are just bits of MDF held together by cheap, flimsy-looking hinges and more or less attractive veneer. They seem utterly charmless and no substitute for some proper handsome furniture, such as a dresser or a cabinet.

However, I am also fully aware that they are one of the first things that any self- respecting member of the British bourgeoisie thinks of when buying or refurbishing a home. Thus they would seem to me to be a fine investment. Not because of the added value they can bring to a home (always a bit of a gamble, I'd have thought), but because you can buy shares in the companies that make them.

So, I decided to buy some shares in Smallbone of Devizes. I have only just realised that they were quoted on AIM, the Stock Exchange's international market for smaller companies, having floated there two years ago after a long history in and out of various combines.

Rummage through upmarket property ads and you'll soon find references to Smallbone kitchens as a positive selling point. I hasten to add that my jaundiced view of the sort of fitted kitchen you're liable to end up with from a DIY shed does not apply to the Smallbone lot. They're a much more expensive, high-quality affair, likely to see you out, if not your house. Say £40,000 plus. (It's still a fitted kitchen, though.)

In any case, while I can't afford a Smallbone kitchen myself, I am happy to make a few quid out of those proud householders who can. The shares still have a family presence in the form of the chairman, Charlie Smallbone, and have had an excellent run over the past couple of years. Recently, Smallbone bought another kitchen business, Mark Wilkinson Furniture, whose products are favoured by the likes of Gary Rhodes and David Seaman (just in case you've not been asked round to their gaffs lately).

Smallbone's celebrity clients include Elizabeth Hurley, Davina McCall, Rowan Atkinson and Oprah Winfrey, none of whom would be affected too badly by any downturn in the property market. The company reported record profits a couple of months ago, and its prospects seem decent enough.

And so that is what I did with a big chunk of the cash I got from my BAA shares, now taken over by Ferrovial. I can't resist pointing out once again that quite a few of the more prized assets in my portfolio have just gone in the past couple of years - delisted and in the hands of private equity and/or foreigners. They vary from Abbey National to Manchester United, and I'm not happy about it. Clearly, the traditional stock market isn't up to the task of nourishing these companies.

The big money right now seems to be flowing through hedge funds and private equity groups, and away from traditional long-term investment houses looking after pensions and life policies. Presumably, that is also because fewer of us want to plough much of our money into such investments, given the likes of Equitable Life and the various misselling scandals. In fact, we would rather spend our pension pot on a Smallbone of Devizes kitchen, it would appear.

The trend is obviously bad for those of us with a few pennies who are trying to look to our long-term financial security. As soon as we think we've found some value, the sharks are there, tearing our investments out of our hands and dismembering them. Blood everywhere. In essence, their impact isn't so different to that of the junk bond promoters of the 1980s or the primitive "asset strippers" of the 1970s - capitalism is evolving once again, and as usual, the rich are getting richer.

The rest of my BAA money I used to add to Serco, the all-purpose services and outsourcing company that runs the Docklands Light Railway in east London. I also bought a slug of Amazon.com shares. Serco is a favourite of mine as it seems to avoid the sort of bad publicity that rival Capita always attracts. Amazon.com is, I know, not exactly a great discovery, but I am impressed by its resilience and its flexibility in the face of new challenges, from older retailers and newer technologies (MP3) alike.

So, losing my BAA shares did make me look to new possibilities, but, on balance, I think I would rather have stuck with them. Pity I didn't have the opportunity.

s.ogrady@independent.co.uk

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