Smaller Companies: Contracts confirm recovery at Sutcliffe Speakman

SUTCLIFFE SPEAKMAN, the activated carbon maker, will announce two contracts early this week that will confirm the company is firmly on the path to recovery.

Two years ago it was staring into the abyss, and only a pounds 14m cash injection and debt-for-equity swap prevented it calling in the receivers.

Having been as high as 180p in 1990, the shares plunged, were suspended for seven months, and bottomed out at 4.5p. Since then they have moved as high as 16p and settled at 10p. It is early days yet, and the market will want to see concrete evidence of recovery, but the shares are starting to look good value again.

Activated carbon is used as a filter by a range of industries from printing to chemicals to gold extraction. It is used to extract odours, to take taste and colour out of drinking water and to absorb and store gas at low pressures. Increasingly tough environmental legislation means that the number of applications is growing.

That did not stop the company from accumulating debts of pounds 24m two years ago, falling out with a big supplier in Sri Lanka (coconuts are a big source of carbon) and losing the support of its banks. The subsequent restructuring saw new management arrive, the disposal of peripheral activities and a return to the core business of carbon products.

Losses in the year to March 1992 were reduced from pounds 14.5m to pounds 2.1m. This year break-even in the second half, which ends next week, should see the full-year loss contained at the pounds 560,000 interim deficit. Next year is expected to see the first profit since 1990.

The two new contracts, both in the US, are significant. The first, a dollars 1.5m deal with the US Department of Energy, is to design and build a mobile system to clean up contaminated soil. Richard Mumford, chief executive, thinks there are plenty of chemicals companies in the US and Europe that could use the system to clean up sites so they could be sold on.

The second project, worth dollars 1.75m, is to build a plant to regenerate carbon used by water companies to purify drinking water. It should be up and running by September, and with the technique just starting to be used in the UK there is great potential to market it over here.

Mr Mumford said: 'These two important pieces of business indicate a steady upturn in demand for our activated carbon technology. We are confident that the technology, which we are successfully applying to clean-up situations in North America, can be transferred to other markets.'

Another interesting development could be an exclusive agreement to supply the manufacturers of gas-powered cars with the carbon used to absorb the fuel, storing high volumes at low pressure, essential if gas is to be a viable alternative to petrol. British Gas, one of the manufacturing consortium members, estimates there will be 200,000 gas-powered cars in Britain within 10 years.

Profits from that development are a long way off and the market will look closely at this year's figures to see solid signs that the bad old days are finally over. But with gearing under control, plenty of accumulated losses to keep the tax charge low and a focus on a fast-growing market, the shares could move ahead nicely from a very low base.