Small Talk: Hard news on soft wood is welcomed

In the week that the world throws a whole lot of carbon in the air travelling to Copenhagen for the international climate change conference, one of the Alternative Investment Market (Aim) sustainable leaders announced that it has tapped the improved sentiment among small-cap investors.

Accsys Technologies has developed a clever technique, sold under the trade name Accoya, that toughens softwood, enabling it to be used as a hardwood. Hardwood takes much longer to grow, is more expensive and much rarer than the soft varieties. So, the group claims, Accoya not only gives Accsys's clients a cheaper alternative to an expensive commodity but also gives the environment a breather too.

The group last week said that it is aiming to raise €17m through an equity placing. Among other uses, the net proceeds will help support production of Accoya wood out of the company's plant in Arnhem, increasing the production of panel products using other technology to a commercial scale and providing working capital.

"The strengthening of our financial position through this fundraising is a significant step," said Paul Clegg, Accsys' chief executive. "We have made great strides over the past few months in expanding our global network of distributors, building the Accoya wood brand and raising awareness within the industry that our product has the high performance of a hard wood whilst being fully sustainable. We strongly believe this will fuel greater licensing opportunities." Accsys claims its treated soft wood can survive for several years submerged in water. In the Netherlands, a road bridge guaranteed for 90 years has been built using only Accoya.

Firestone adds hint of sparkle

The proof of the pudding with any announcement made by an Aim-listed company is how the market reacts to the news. Firestone Diamonds, the Aim-listed and Botswana-based group was up 14.7 per cent on Thursday morning after announcing that it intends to commence development of commercial operations at its kimberlite project in Botswana. The shares closed the week up 9.38 per cent.

The group hopes to start production in the second quarter next year, and says that the remaining development costs can be funded from existing cash reserves.

Firestone's numbers look good too, with estimated revenue of $16 per tonne and operating costs of $6.50 per tonne. The group expects to produce annual revenues of approximately $24m at operating margins of 60 per cent.

Giving with one hand, taking with the other

The pre-Budget report was a mixed bag for small businesses: the Chancellor, Alistair Darling, deferred the introduction of a one per cent increase in corporation tax, leaving the rate for SMEs at 21 per cent next year. The move will help 850,000 small companies. Other measures will also help, such as the extension of the Enterprise Finance Guarantee and the Time to Pay scheme.

The EFG, under which the Government guarantees 75 per cent of loans for companies with a turnover of less than £25m, was extended for 12 months and will secure up to £500m worth of loans. The Time to Pay initiative is also being prolonged, allowing 160,000 businesses to spread the cost of tax payments over longer periods. Separately, the Growth Capital Fund, which helps start-up businesses for five years has been handed a further £500m.

What the Chancellor gave with one hand, he took away with the other, with the Federation of Small Businesses claiming that the 0.5 per cent jump in National Insurance would lead to a 57,000 small-cap job losses. There has been a lot of ink spilt already on the PBR, and some argue that the smaller companies should also be engaged in a bit of self help.

UK VAT-registered SMEs are missing out on a quarter of potential VAT reclaims due to sloppy expense practices, shows research commissioned by fuelGenie, the business fuel-card produced for use at supermarket forecourts. Sarah Keane at fuelGenie said: "Petrol is the most common expense claimed by UK SME employees [making up about 60.5 per cent of all claims] yet one in four fuel expenses are submitted without a receipt.

"SME owners need to clamp down on lax attitudes to expenses, or risk losing much-needed cash at a time when profits are under extreme pressure. Ensuring corporate expense policies are followed is something that can have a big effect on a company's bottom line."

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