Freepages - the company you should have heard of

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The Independent Online
Freepages has been a stellar performer since it obtained an AIM listing in February last year. The company operates a competitor to BT's Talking Pages and has ambitions to develop Internet services.

The shares were first listed at 12p, which capitalised Free-pages at pounds 48m - a testing valuation for a loss-making company with sales of pounds 1.64m in 1995. However, the share price has been on an almost vertical ascent ever since. The company recently concluded a pounds 43m fund raising, which included obtaining a listing on Nasdaq, the United States stock exchange which specialises in hi-tech and developing companies.

Last week, Robert Bonnier, the new chief executive, and Ronald Dorjee, the finance director, went into the market to buy 1.5 million shares between them. Mr Bonnier had the bulk, with 1 million shares at 47.5p each, to take his already significant holding up to 30 million shares, worth pounds 14.25m - not bad going for a 27-year-old.

The company has expanded since its listing: it has signed up with Vodafone to produce Vodafone Freepages, which subscribers can reach by dialling an access code 333, instead of the Freefone 0800 or 0500 numbers on fixed- line telephone services. It also signed a deal with Dutch publishing house VNU to invest pounds 7m in a similar service in the Benelux countries.

Founder Nigel Robertson, the previous chief executive, resigned in December to "pursue new business initiatives".

Freepages makes its money by charging to advertise on its service. The average subscription costs pounds 715 a year, which seems high. The company has yet to reach the level of penetration enjoyed by its rival, Talking Pages. BT, of course, has the added clout of being able to use its existing Yellow Pages salesforce to promote the service to advertisers - as well as much deeper pockets.

Sales are running at around pounds 9m a year, and there is clearly the opportunity for revenues to rise further. However, promoting the service to the consumer is another headache. Few people know it and if advertisers don't see a benefit, they won't renew. The company is now worth pounds 180m, at 47p a share. But the recent purchases suggest the management retains confidence in the future direction of the business. A speculative buy.