Small Talk: Asos back in business after Buncefield explosion

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The Independent Online

It could have been so much worse. That nobody was seriously hurt in the Buncefield oil depot explosion in December is something close to a miracle. Next to that, the fact that the online fashion retailer Asos will still make £2.5m profit this year is just a small mercy. But investors will thank heaven for it.

Asos's sole warehouse is 700 metres from the Buncefield site and was damaged in the blast. But it was shielded by taller buildings in between and has not become structurally unsound. Stock with a retail value of £3.8m was made unsellable, but the warehouse itself is structurally sound and has been patched up.

So it is with fanfare that Asos announces this morning that its website is back up and running and the business is able to fulfil orders once again. The company's insurer will pick up the tab for the lost profit - the Christmas period which was disrupted usually accounts for about 60 per cent of the company's profits - and for the discounts it is offering customers who didn't get their festive orders last month.

There will also be a national magazine advertising campaign which, it is hoped, can go on the insurance tab, too, so expect Asos to trade stronger than ever after its enforced five-week period offline.

RC Group bucks trend

Profits warnings from UK companies were up by almost a quarter in 2005 compared with the previous year, we learnt in a survey released by Ernst & Young over the weekend.

Putting in an early bid to reverse that trend in 2006, Small Talk hears that RC Group - a Hong Kong technology firm which floated on AIM in 2004 - is ready to release a "reverse profit warning", a statement that it has beaten even its broker's optimistic forecasts for current trading.

RC has assembled a portfolio of security and product tracking technologies, which include iris and fingerprint recognition and RFID (radio frequency identification) tags. After an £11m fundraising in November, it is back once again on the acquisition trail and planning to expand beyond its Asian heartland.

Although RC operates in an increasingly competitive market, it appears to have blown through Corporate Synergy's forecasts for £9.3m of turnover and £3.8m of profit in the year just ended. Expect the company to issue a triumphant review of 2005 and an optimistic preview of 2006.

Lung and winding road

Ask yourself if you would subject yourself to a medical procedure to have tissue scraped out of your lung, in return for a taxi fare and lunch in the hospital canteen. Stephen Holgate, the founder of Synairgen, insists that it is not even slightly uncomfortable, since the procedure is carried out under local anaesthetic, and the food at Southampton General Hospital is really rather good.

Synairgen, through its work with Southampton University, where Mr Holgate is professor of immunopharmacology, has access to tissue samples collected from 1,000 volunteers and continues to advertise on local radio, in the papers and on student noticeboards for new volunteers, particularly those who suffer from asthma and other lung diseases.

Why? Synairgen is analysing the samples and using them to test potential new inhaled drugs, including one which it believes will treat cold symptoms for asthmatics. As a commercial enterprise this remains very early stage, very speculative, but it is proving to be fascinating science.

Boost for P&MM

P&MM, an AIM-listed marketing specialist, has won a ground-breaking contract to organise a tax-free benefits scheme for a local authority. The 12,800 employees of Nottingham City Council are being offered discounts on local entertainment and health care, plus tax savings on home computers and bikes.

P&MM's new employee benefits package has also been taken on by Southern Water, Rugeley Power, Propencity and a "significant government agency", the company will say in a trading update today.

XCounter seeks £14m funding

There are two breasts on the front cover of a research note promoting shares in a new X-ray company being floated by Code Securities.

One shows a routine mammogram and the other a strikingly clearer scan using XCounter's new X-ray technology. The Swedish company is trying to raise up to £14m to fund commercialisation of its technology, which was developed by the chief executive, Tom Francke, and other researchers with experience from Nasa in the fields of radiation instrumentation and space research.

The float is expected to give XCounter a valuation of £52m to £54m.

Dr Francke hopes that positive early feedback from trials of the technology will translate into firm orders by 2009, and in the meantime the company is pursuing a deal to license its invention to a big medical company with the resources to get the product approved by regulators.

The investors backing the float believe that XCounter's potential lies in the fact that it exposes users to a much lower dose of harmful radiation than traditional machines.

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