Private Investor: The blue chip shares that just keep letting the small guys down

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The Independent Online

Following my article on small brewers Shepherd Neame last week - I wrote that investing in it through Ofex was a little off-putting - I have received some information about a very interesting and unusual investment scheme. It turns out that Camra, the Campaign for Real Ale, runs an investment club that, naturally enough, specialises in investing in the shares of smaller brewers, such as Shepherd Neame, Adnams and the like, and pub chains.

Now I'm not quite sure whether the purpose of this exercise is to maximise profits or to maximise the beer-oriented interests of Camra members, so I am reserving my position about joining Camra and investing via its club. Camra themselves tell me that they like to buy shares in smaller brewers so they can influence the businesses and try to prevent "the big boys" buying them out.

To be honest, I think I agree with Camra's opinions in this, as I am in the minority who place proper beer and proper boozers in the same category as any other endangered national treasure, just as valuable as the red squirrel, say, or cooking with lard or double-decker buses.

What's more, I don't see why niche players in an industry such as this cannot be more profitable, taking into account their size, than the mega-groups. The Camra scheme must be one of the biggest investment clubs in the land, with a total of £3.25m invested in beer related stocks, with £250,000 in Shepherd Neame. And for £16 per annum membership of Camra is not exactly onerous as a method of bypassing Ofex. So we shall see.

The other interesting thing I learnt last week concerns the structure of Shepherd Neame itself. As I suspected, it has two classes of share: "B" shares, which are controlled by the Neame family and carry voting rights; and "A" shares, which anyone else, such as Camra, can own, and which allow one to participate in the success of the business but do not carry any influence on the decision-making process. I've never really liked this sort of structure, although I have bought non- voting shares in the past.

Against that we have Shepherd Neame's apparently unbroken 20-year record of increases in profits. Investing through Ofex also offers significant potential tax advantages, although I don't know if these apply to me. Seeing as I never seem to make that much out of equities it may be of limited use. At 735p or so Shepherd Neame are at an all-time high, they tell me. Whether this represents good or bad value for money, however, is a question I may put to my new friends in Camra.

Elsewhere, boards in some of Britain's biggest companies seem to have been taking my advice. How exhilarating to see the chairman of Shell resign, for example. I meant what I said when I wrote a few weeks ago that if a petrol station attendant had performed as badly as Phil Watts he'd have been given his P45; and it is an interesting indicator, and a welcome one, that even a figure as senior as Watts should have to face the same fate as any other member of staff when he falls down on his job.

Another piece of encouraging news is that Vittorio Radice, the gifted Marks & Spencer executive, has been placed in charge of M&S's clothing business. He made an excellent job of home furnishings, and the flair he showed there, and at his old job as head of Selfridges, will soon show through. What a pity that the City doesn't seem to share my enthusiasm, marking the shares down on news of his appointment on Thursday.

Shell and Marks & Spencer are such "interesting" stocks because, even after being such supposedly steady and reliable blue chips for many years, they have proved a rotten investment in each case. You might well feel reassured when you put Shell Optimax in your fuel tank or buy an M&S suit, but I would say that my faith in the shares has been disappointingly rewarded. I really do think that these companies would be much better off if they realised precisely what their poor performance has meant for smaller investors and indeed listened to what these people had to say about their businesses. These are, on the whole, people who cannot just slink off to enormous homes and vast pension schemes, unlike all those executives who've fluffed it. I hope Mr Radice is different.


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