Business on Sunday's Independent 100: A leading edge in the middle

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The Independent Online
WHEN Elonex finished some way down last year's listing, the managers of the north London-based computer maker felt aggrieved. They pointed out that an established company would have much more difficulty showing strong natural growth than a firm that was just starting out.

This time, they are vindicated. Placed 14th in the overall listing, the company heads the middle-market table, introduced this year to mark the sustained achievement of such companies as Elonex, which had turnover of at least pounds 5m in the first year.

At the starting-point five years ago, its turnover was already pounds 5.5m - more than pounds 2m above Termtek's total last year. By the end of last year, this had grown more than 1,000 per cent to pounds 59m; this year sales will amount to about pounds 77m, making the finance director, Michael Spiro, hopeful that it will once again take the middle-market award.

The company, founded by an Israeli emigre, Israel Wetrin, working from his flat, has come a long way in seven years. Like the similarly conceived Computers Unlimited, it has benefited from the shake-up of the computer business that has ended the dominance of the market giants, such as IBM and Compaq. Through offering highly competitive prices for the products developed at its Californian R & D facility, it has become Britain's largest direct-mail supplier of PCs and the sixth largest overall, with a market share of about 5 per cent.

Mr Spiro attributes the company's success to a combination of the products, prices and service. Its success has given it a certain amount of influence. Although Mr Spiro is at pains to point out that Elonex is not the only company that affects the market and is not a market leader, he adds that this situation has led to certain suppliers showing a willingness to form deals with it.

Only last week, the US software house Microsoft joined with Elonex to offer new packages for use with the company's machines. 'It's for their interest and our interest,' he said.

Although the sales growth of Stagecoach Holdings was only about half that achieved by Elonex, its performance could be seen as even more impressive. Starting from an annual turnover of more than pounds 26m in the first year, the bus company, run by the brother and sister team Brian Souter and Ann Gloag, saw sales climb to more than pounds 140m over the past five years. Similarly, Stena Offshore, a company supplying oil rigs and other installations at sea, which is part of the Swedish Stena group, increased its sales from pounds 15m to pounds 126m.

The achievement has helped Stagecoach go public this year, with trading in its shares due to start on Tuesday. Not that the owners apparently needed the money for themselves: according to the latest Sunday Times table of Britain's richest people, they were tied at 113th with Elonex's Mr Wetrin, on pounds 80m.

Elonex has also declared an interest in a flotation, but the management is under no illusions about what such a move would entail. Mr Spiro said the idea was still being considered, but he added that he and his colleagues were concerned about the limitation it would place on the company's ability to move quickly in a constantly changing marketplace. 'You can't be as agile,' he said.

In the meantime, Elonex, for one, is concentrating on not following the likes of IBM on to a downward slope. Mr Wetrin talks of the need to be aggressive in a market in which everybody is fighting for survival. IBM is still the market leader, with an 11 per cent share. But that is down from about 25 per cent four years ago, and in the same period Elonex's proportion has risen 10-fold from about 0.5 per cent to the current 5 per cent.

While there is therefore plenty of growth potential, the company is not taking anything for granted. 'We're never complacent about the opposition,' Mr Spiro said.

THE FOLLOWING are the winners in the new category for more established companies, in recognition of achievement in sustaining growth over a long period.

(Photograph and list omitted)