Finance: Taking AIM at juicier targets

GARY JONES is in a position familiar to many people running small companies quoted on the Alternative Investment Market. His business, an information technology staffing company called SBS Group, has been developing well - making two acquisitions since joining the market two years ago, and on track with plans to build a substantial organisation in the UK, continental Europe and the US - yet its share price is stuck in the doldrums.

The company's stock, which peaked at more than 350p on the back of excitement about the first acquisition and subsequent cash-raising placing, is stuck at about 152p. Mr Jones does point out that this is still 52 per cent above the initial price of exactly a pound. "In normal circumstances, I would consider that a pretty good return," he says.

The problem is that these are not supposed to be normal circumstances. SBS is meant to be the sort of growing business upon which the future prosperity of the country is riding. And, as such, many would expect its share price to reflect better its combination of already-achieved growth and huge potential.

The absence of what might be termed a feel-good factor has been causing soul-searching during AIM's fourth anniversary celebrations. There has been extensive comment about the lack of liquidity in AIM stocks and the resultant lack-lustre share prices.

So the market and its supporters are trying to redress the balance. The recently published third annual "Taking Aim" survey from accountants HLB Kidsons points to a number of "misconceptions" about the market among fast-growing companies considering flotation.

The biggest problem is low turnover of shares, said 59 per cent of respondents. Graham Spooner, Kidsons' director of corporate finance, said the volume of AIM shares traded had increased from 739m in March 1998 to 1.2bn in March this year, and the average number of shares traded per company increased 46 per cent between the first quarter of 1998 and the similar period this year. He said most respondents were attracted by access to funds for more growth.

A 11-year-old company, Sussex-based Bond International Software, entered AIM in 1997. The chief executive Steve Russell, said they spent the first year "getting ourselves sorted out again." But acquisitions are on the agenda because they are considerably easier to achieve once a company is listed. He is also keen to benefit from what he and his colleagues estimate is the pounds 100,000 annual cost of being listed. Mr Russell sees value in being a listed company, regarding it as conferring status and thus being a significant differentiator in a crowded field. As one of the market's better performers - at the end of last week its shares were trading at 107p, compared with an issue price of 65p - Bond has little complaint about its market value. Mr Russell, like SBS's Mr Jones, says there is little problem in attracting investments of pounds 500,000 to pounds 1m, but more difficulty when it comes to tens of thousands. But, where Mr Jones feels it is largely a matter of smaller companies going out of fashion because of a greater emphasis on cautious investment, Mr Russell also points to the effects of the share structures of companies like his.

Five venture capitalist trusts investing for fixed terms are involved in Bond, while "a lot of the shareholders are staff who are in for the long haul", he says. The second survey of AIM published yesterday by Pannell Kerr Forster found that, although the respondents were acutely aware of the problems facing smaller capitalisation companies in terms of investor caution and liquidity, their views "were somewhat more upbeat than the "doom and gloom" in press coverage over the last six months."

PKF - which questioned 144 AIM-listed firms and 17 that moved to the main market last year - says AIM should create and publicise sector indices to help monitor growth and high-income stocks to stimulate investor interest; track the performance of the top 50 performers to profile success; and continue encouraging institutional investment and attracting European finance.

Andrew Swanston, chairman of Methven's, the chain of book shops that operates in affluent south-eastern towns, wants a fundamental reassessment. His company came to AIM in April 1997, when its turnover was half the present pounds 7m, and he regards the listing as valuable in helping raise the finance for an expansion programme.

He sees little trading in his shares, except from market makers marking the price up or down, depending on company developments. "It's a perfectly respectable way of raising money, but there are no buyers and sellers," he says. "It's another form of venture capital."

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