Public grief for Herring Baker for Herring

The Investment Column

It may not qualify as good news, which has been in short supply at Herring Baker Harris, chartered surveyors, but at least shareholders can be consoled that they are sharing their despair with as astute an investor as John Ritblat, the chairman of British Land who snapped up a 9 per cent stake last August.

His average buying price of 40p compares with yesterday's 12p, unchanged after the announcement of a hefty £7.65m loss. For anyone who has had the misfortune to be on the register since the fateful merger that created the company three years ago, the decline in the value of their stake has been a more galling 94 per cent.

Herring Baker is not alone - the whole surveying profession is suffering from vicious competition following the slump in property market activity of the past few years. For most of the profession, which keeps its figures hidden in partners' dining rooms, that has been a matter of private grief. For the handful of publicly quoted firms, however, it has wreaked havoc with their share prices - Herring Baker peaked at 190p in 1991.

With sales of £13.9m and staff costs and other overheads of £15.2m, there is no great mystery about Herring's problems. Mr Micawber would have understood only too well the industry's inability to match spending and income. What is most worrying about yesterday's announcement is the dilution imposed on shareholders by the decision to buy out of onerous lease agreements by issuing shares amounting to a fifth of Herring's existing share capital.

If a surveyor cannot get its own leases right, shareholders might rightly wonder what it can do.

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