Small Talk: Debt-saddled Walker looks stylish again

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The trend for minimalist interior design - all that white and those harsh, clean lines - appears to be running out of steam. There is increasingly a place for the patterns, the swirls and opulent designs of upmarket designers at Walker Greenbank's main brands, Zoffany and Sanderson.

The company's shares are also back in fashion. They have jumped more than 50 per cent in the past two months, since directors decided to put their heads above the parapet again after several years of vital restructuring. A City charm offensive has impressed a number of private client brokers, who have been buying, and the hope is that a new analysis of the business published last week by Teather & Greenwood (recently appointed Walker Greenbank's broker) will generate some institutional investor interest, too.

Don't get carried away. Despite an overhaul of the manufacturing operations, which is doing significant amounts of business for outside companies as well as in-house work, the company still has high debts and a big pension liability. Gearing will be well over 100 per cent for several years, on the latest forecasts.

But Walker Greenbank is making an operating profit for the first time in six years, so could start to pay back some of its debts. And it is clearly focusing on promoting its brands, which have significant value. It hopes to win agreement to sell through Harrods, with which it is talking at the moment. And the company aims to ape the recent success of Colefax, the other listed posh wallpaper company, in building a big presence in the US.

Media Square swoop

Media Square, the in-store marketing business, may have walked away from its £60m talks to buy the non-public relations businesses of Huntsworth last month, but its appetite for growth by acquisition clearly remains undimmed.

Small Talk hears it is about to buy two private companies, one in Leeds and one in London, that will take it into a new area, printing. Historically, Media Square has outsourced this mundane work, preferring to concentrate on design and advice to its clients, which include B&Q, Tesco, Boots, Warner Brothers and Universal Pictures.

Voller Energy dims

Voller Energy, which raised £10m at 74p a share in a flotation by Arden Partners in February, is languishing now at half that share price. Why the collapse?

The reason is investors' growing fear that the company is having to spend more money than expected to develop its innovative technology into a commercially viable product. It has designed a portable fuel cell for use as a battery charger and mobile generator, with its most promising early application being on building sites. For this reason - and for the reason that Voller's chairman is the former chief executive of the equipment-hire group Speedy Hire, John Brown - Voller's efforts are concentrated on developing a fuel-cell system for Speedy Hire to offer customers in the construction industry.

Voller has a letter of intent from Speedy Hire which, provided the technical specifications are met, will be the launch customer in the UK for its products. Those specifications are tough, though.

Arden's sales forecasts depend crucially on Voller getting a product into Speedy Hire's nationwide network of depots by the end of this year. Investors' worry is that hiccups in the development process may cause delays.

The directors' cut

And to leave you on an optimistic note... the ratio of directors' share-buying to sell has spiked suddenly higher in recent weeks. In the week commencing 18 July, there were 6.75 buyers to every seller among directors of Alternative Investment Market companies, according to digitallook.com, the investment website. The average for the past two weeks is five-to-one, compared with four-to-one usually.

Meanwhile, the junior market, AIM, is now up 11.5 per cent since its nadir on 18 May. So much for selling in May and going away.

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