Comino 'a sitting duck' as software groups attract takeover attention

Small Companies Notebook
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Comino is a "sitting duck for a takeover", our City sources tell us. The takeover of London Bridge Software by the US group Fair Isaac reminded people that Comino - whose software systems are used by housing authorities to make dealings with their tenants more efficient - attracted transatlantic interest last year from Constellation, one of the big players in social housing software in the US.

Constellation eventually sold out their stake and Comino's shares have gone nowhere in the interim, despite an improving profit performance. Results are due later this month.

Speculation as to who might take a pop at the business is centring on Civica, which floated in London in February and which is hunting for acquisitions. Civica is a big supplier of software to local authorities, helping to issue parking tickets, monitor bus lanes and collect taxes. What it doesn't have is a big presence in social housing ... which is where Comino would fit in.

With Constellation still keeping an eye on developments and other acquisitive domestic companies also likely to be hovering around, Comino is one to watch.

Tax package

The things people will do to save tax. One of the more fascinating flotations in the recent wave of new arrivals has been Robinson. A plastics and paperboard packaging business, it has a history dating back to 1839 when John Bradbury Robinson bought a bankrupt business and began the manufacture of pillboxes.

The Robinson family are still major shareholders and the company was floated on AIM at the same time as the launch of a tender offer to buy back £10m-worth of their shares - 40 per cent of the company. The myriad tax benefits that are ascribed to AIM investments make that a more tax efficient way of returning the surplus capital than could be achieved as a private company. Whether the listing comes in useful for much else remains to be seen. The shares have been unmoved at 82p since flotation and trading in them is thin and difficult, but the company is promising a progressive dividend and a 4 per cent yield.

Hot turns up the heat

Things are hotting up at Hot Group, the online recruitment group which owns websites such as and The company, controlled by Office Angels founder Tony Reeves, is cooking up two more acquisitions to add to the four it has already made this year. Although Hot has been expanding into the traditional high street recruitment marketplace, these latest deals will add more websites to its portfolio. These bring in new databases of jobs and regular users, and Hot can cut costs by centralising the administration. Cool.

Advanced placing

HEARD ON the grapevine over the weekend: Advanced Technology has been planning another equity fund raising but investors haven't exactly been biting their broker's hand off for shares. The company makes remote control meter reading equipment but has fallen on hard times as it attempts to negotiate a long-delayed contract for its latest product with Ghana's water company. It has been muddling through with sub-£1m share placings and the sale of warrants, but a bigger placing is now being mooted. The question is, at what price? Last week the talk was that it could be a little above 20p; the latest thinking is it may come at a little below.

Artisan's court win

Artisan UK, the little Cambridgeshire-based housebuilder, has won out in an acrimonious two-year legal battle over the disposal of a subsidiary company. The sale of the appropriately named Bickerton business ended up with a spat in the courts when Infiniteland, which bought it in June 2001, claimed it was misled over the value of contracts and profitability at Bickerton. The High Court has found that the claims fail and that Artisan's counter-claim for deferred payments totalling £502,000 is successful. There will be another hearing soon to decide on costs and interest.

Eyeing CustomVis

CustomVis had a ripper of a profits warning back in February, when it said early sales of its revolutionary laser eye surgery equipment would be held back by manufacturing problems and regulatory delays. Two systems are now in operation, though, and the company has felt able to make its first sheepish tour of bruised institutional investors. It is telling them that the German surgeon using the first piece of kit is very enthusiastic about it and there is even talk of it being demonstrated live at a conference in June.

Croma shapes up

Another positive trading update is expected from Croma, the little security equipment group chaired by John French, the serial AIM company chairman. The performance of its two most recent acquisitions - a company whose technology can make out shapes through fog or mist and one which makes surveillance camera equipment - has been strong, with the pair now having a combined order book of £1.4m. Apparently, a substantial proportion of that will come through in Croma's current financial year.

James Beattie, the venerable Midlands-based department store chain, is once again the subject of City gossip that it hopes to sell its flagship Birmingham store, above.

The old C&A building was refitted at a cost of £7.5m before reopening as Beatties in September 2001, but its losses have been spiralling, particularly since the new Bullring shopping centre opened and customers flocked to the space-age Selfridges and Debenhams stores there.

Analysts worry that it will struggle to sell or even sub-let the space, but they say that the company's most recent pronouncement - that it expects trading to bounce back as the Bullring attracts more shoppers to the city centre as a whole - sounds as much like a sales pitch as a promise to trade through the problems.