Market report: Training course problems add to turmoil for Azlan

IT'S HARD to imagine things getting any worse for Azlan, but they just did. The company, which distributes components for computer networks and provides training in information technology, was the stock market dog of 1997 after it revealed widespread accounting problems.

After a four-month investigation, during which the company's chairman, chief executive and finance director all departed, Azlan revealed a pounds 15m loss and launched a rescue rights issue. The shares, which had been suspended during the investigation, plunged to a fraction of their previous value.

At the time, few observers expected Azlan to remain independent for long. But the buyers have failed to materialise and the problems have continued to pile up. Yesterday, the shares slipped 5p to 46.5p as the market got wind of problems in the training businesses.

Compaq, the US computer giant, has withdrawn the accreditation which allows Azlan to run training courses involving its products. Meanwhile Computacenter, the soon-to-be-floated computer distributor, has decided to set up its own training arm rather than pass clients on to Azlan.

A spokeswoman yesterday pointed out that Azlan had simultaneously picked up accreditation to do training for Intel, the chip giant. But the turmoil and uncertainty is unlikely to end soon.

There was plenty of activity elsewhere in the information technology sector. Shares in derivatives software specialist Rolfe & Nolan plunged 147.5p to 325p as US rival Sunguard withdrew its bid. The offer has attracted stiff opposition from users of the software.

Meanwhile, smaller IT consultancies were in demand. Admiral ended a strong week with a 42.5p hike to 1072.5p after house broker SBC Warburg showed institutional investors around its French operations. The shares have doubled in value since September. Druid, specialising in SAP software, jumped 136.5p to 992.5p.

A rush of activity on the last day of the tax year helped the market to yet another record high, up 11.4 points at 6064.2. Dealers said private money continued to pour into personal equity plans.

Meanwhile, institutions took the opportunity to realise tax losses in troubled DIY group MFI Furniture, which was one of the most heavily traded stocks of the day. Over 32 million of the shares, which have halved in value since last August, changed hands.

Vague chatter of a bid from B&Q or, even more improbably, Argos, failed to move the share price, which was unchanged at 81.5p.

The market saw little new in Argos's final defence in its battle with rival GUS, and marked the shares down 2p to 646p. GUS gained 6p to 760p.

Over in the Footsie, all the activity was in mobile phone group Orange, which rose sharply as SBC Warburg cleared its 4 per cent stake. The 42 million shares, left over from Warburg's placing of the stake it took over from British Aerospace a few days ago, were all placed with institutions. They finished the day up 27p at 428p, suggesting that Warburg had made a tidy profit on the remaining shares.

Meanwhile, Warburg's telecom analysts were also said to be recommending rival mobile operator Vodafone, which put on 30p to 659p.

Standard Chartered gained 4p to 864p late in the day with Citicorp rumoured to be interested in making an approach.

Nuclear power generator British Energy added 33p to 585p as it extended the accounting life of two power stations. But National Power fell 27p to 573p as Merrill Lynch cut its recommendation on the shares to "reduce". The broker argued that with falling dividend cover and waning bid speculation the shares are at least 15 per cent overvalued compared to PowerGen, up 1p at 827p.

Consumer goods stocks were hitting record highs with Unilever, up 20p at 628p and Reckitt & Colman, 50p better at 1225p, especially in demand.

Cable operator Cable & Wireless Communications, up 9.5p at 421p, continued to gain ground on Thursday's restructuring plan. Upstart telecom group Energis added another 42.5p to 707.5p after its deal with France Telecom and Deutsche Telekom.

News that Volkswagen had launched a higher bid for its Rolls-Royce luxury car unit lifted Vickers, up 6.5p at 237p, despite the group's insistence that it would continue in exclusive talks with BMW until at least the end of April.

Profit-taking hit electronics group Racal, down 10p to 333p, and car hire firm Avis Europe, 6.5 lighter at 237.5p.

News that it planned to pose of its Milton Keynes distribution warehouse as part of a cost-cutting drive lifted car parts distributor Partco 10.5p to 330.5p.

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