US construction crunch brings Titan to market

Small companies notebook
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Wheels and tyres, rolling down the road. Towards the AIM market. Titan Europe, maker of heavy duty wheels for tractors, trucks and construction industry vehicles, is in the final stages of a flotation that will value the Kidderminster-based operation at about £60m.

Seymour Pierce, the niche broker, has been given the job of punting the shares in the City, and it reckons a pick-up in the global construction industry makes now an ideal time to get a hearing.

The company is being spun out of Titan International, a global group based in Quincy, Illinois, in the heart of the US rust belt. The parent company is expected to hang on to about half the stock, with about £30m worth of shares being placed.

Loss-making Titan International is raising cash to bolster its balance sheet after the economic slowdown affected demand for construction vehicles, compounding the problems it has faced because of the farming industry's perennial financial difficulties. The hope is that its profitable European division, with annual sales of about £70m, can use a separate listing as a springboard for expansion. Watch out for the shares around the end of this month.

Plantation growth

It is reshuffle week for the FTSE's UK indices and while the "cabinet posts" will get most of the attention (GKN out of the FTSE 100, LogicaCMG in, according to the latest odds) it is at the junior ministerial level where the most interesting appointments are to be found. A move up into the FTSE All-Share can put a little company suddenly in the spotlight of big investors, and one interesting stock set to make the move is Anglo-Eastern Plantations.

The company has 24,000 hectares of palm trees, mainly in Indonesia, and has seen a dramatic improvement in its profits over the past year thanks to expanded production of palm oil. The oil is used in soap and food production, as well as being the vegetable oil of choice for cooking in the tropics (it is unpopular here because it goes cloudy at room temperature, apparently).

The price of palm oil has surged by more than a half since last summer, and it looks like there's going to be a poor harvest in Latin America this year, keeping things cooking for a while longer.

Funding for French

Word is that John French, one of the "serial chairmen" of AIM, is planning an acquisition for his newly floated security company, Croma. Mr French - who also heads Air Music & Media and the ambulance chasing Claims People - is ready to hit the road this week to tie up an equity fundraising of perhaps £2.5m which, when Croma is worth barely £3m, suggests he has found a sizeable deal. Croma, floated in December, has already developed some intriguing products, including a "light grenade" that can be thrown in to illuminate a sniper's hideout, and an infra-red suit that can make spooks invisible to the sensors of a building's alarm system

A returns

Not one for now, but later in the year, perhaps: Institutional Investor International, the personal finance and bulletin board website that caught the imagination at the height of the boom and then got snapped up by AMP for £52m. It is back in the hands of its founder, Tomás Carruthers. He bought the business back from AMP's demerged UK arm, HHG, for a nominal sum, after his masters decided not to pursue plans to turn the site - now rebranded Ample - into a tool for independent financial advisers.

Mr Carruthers plans a proper strategy review before revealing his hand, but with two major institutional investors providing the funding, it is one to watch.

Blockbuster bonus

Also this week, financial results from Argonaut Games, the computer games developer which last month bagged a contract to work on an all-formats game to tie in with Catwoman, which stars Halle Berry and should be one of the summer's blockbuster films.

Argonaut's interims will look a bit grim, to be honest, although losses are narrowing and the company has got over the disappointment that Vivendi will not be distributing its Malice game. This is being launched through minor distributors in the next few weeks. In the expectation of a promise to cut more jobs and other costs in the second half of the year, some long-term investors are starting to sniff around Argonaut shares.

Northern highlight

Last week was a good one for Minmet, the Irish gold miner with sites in continental Europe and the Americas. Its shares were up almost 5 per cent after it successfully created Lapp Plats, a company for its Scandinavian platinum and nickel exploration interests, and floated it on the lightly regulated Ofex market. In brisk trading, Lapp Plats shares climbed from 7.5p to 9.5p, valuing Minmet's stake at about £700,000.

Minmet might have a second strong week: it gets off on the right track this morning with the publication of positive new data from its 100 per cent-owned Bjorkdal gold mine in northern Sweden.

There seems to be a flood of floats. The stock exchange says 20 have finalised plans to start trading before the end of March. Already three companies have come to market since the start of the month, as many as in the whole of March 2003.

This morning, Polaron's chief executive Joe Stelzer will confirm its own plans to join AIM, raising up to £8m with a placing that gives a company valuation of £25m. Polaron operates in the sexy area of nanotechnology, which involves the manipulation of materials at the atomic level - apparently the key to making microchips even smaller. It makes 3D microscopes.