Headless cash shell Ventiva gets a stay of execution

Small Companies Notebook
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The Independent Online

The flotation of Ventiva, a cash shell on a mission to acquire and merge some of the smaller players in the IT sector, might not have been scuppered after all by the defection of its chief executive. Mark Pearman, the former head of the software group Torex, had raised £3m for the venture before quitting at the end of last month to run Torex Retail - a subsidiary of his old company which was sold by Torex's new owner, iSoft.

Technically, Ventiva could have kept the cash but, says Pearman's partner in the venture, Geoff Bicknell, "it didn't seem reasonable, because investors were backing the management team, and now we would be saying the company is not that but this".

Happily, Mr Bicknell has identified a new chief executive and will spend the next few days checking he is acceptable to the investors who had pledged cash before making a final decision on whether to proceed. "I hope to get this back on the road but it has to be quick because these things have a shelf life."

Eyebright shines

It's not as serious as losing your chief executive, of course, but a last-minute snag also threw the flotation of Eyebright off course. The company is setting up a chain of eye surgeries, where it plans to do operations privately and on behalf of the NHS, but its purchase of a site at the Salisbury District Hospital was almost derailed when the sellers demanded a higher price. That has now been agreed and Salisbury is likely to be the second Eyebright clinic to open.

Johnny Townsend, tried and acquitted of insider dealing in 2000, is the high-profile fundraiser for the company at its broker, John East & Partners, and he was finally able to send out the company's prospectus over the weekend. The plan is to raise about £5m with an AIM float.

Broker Network buy

Broker Network hits the ground running today, with the start of trading of its shares on AIM accompanied by the first of what could total 90 acquisitions.

The Harrogate-based company has long acted as a "head office" for a network of independent local insurance brokers, looking after their regulatory compliance and linking them up with national insurance providers - but now it wants to buy them.

Broker Network's chief executive, Grant Ellis, a former league football player and guitarist in the pub band Broken Fretwork (geddit?), reckons many will be tempted to sell out as they near retirement and as direct regulation by the Financial Services Authority looms next year. The acquisition today of Shropshire's WEM Insurance Brokers is small - worth up to £300,000m - but takes the number of purchases to five already this year.

Cash in with DCF

A key moment for any company is its move into profitability, a milestone which Dynamic Commercial Finance passed earlier this year. The company is in debt factoring, collecting debts on behalf of its corporate clients. It is a market that has grown from £17bn to £117bn in the UK over the last decade and is still growing by 10 per cent a year. Companies know that getting invoices paid quickly is an important part of improving efficiency, so the outlook is bright.

Dean's twins due

Stephen Dean has always been one of the small companies market's most colourful characters. At the height of the dot.com boom he turned the sleepy building group Artisan UK, which he used to chair, into an internet investment vehicle, and constructed a complex network of companies, cross-holdings and other technology investments.

But just when it seemed he had simplified his activities, it is time to get the damp towels ready again. Pay attention. Griffin Group - the US stockbroker Mr Dean chairs, which used to be called Cater Barnard USA and which moved up to AIM from Ofex last December - is to take big stakes in two newly created investment vehicles, originally to be called Orientrose 1 and Orientrose 2. Both are coming to AIM later this month although after a few delays, Orientrose 2 will arrive first, probably this week.

Orientrose 1, which has now changed its name to MetroCapital, will be the bigger of the two. Both vehicles are promising to invest in UK or overseas businesses, which should be profitable or have significant asset value and which operate in a sector that has opportunities for consolidation or further development. Keep an eye out and an aspirin nearby.

Calling IDN holders

Hardly a week goes by, it seems, without another telecoms company springing up offering the lowest possible call charges, so many per cent lower than BT, it usually says, but that often depends on the type of calls you are making.

It is all bamboozling stuff, and for companies, choosing the right deal can be an important saving. Which is why trading at IDN Telecom is so strong at the moment.

Based in Solihull, IDN specialises in analysing a company's telephone call pattern and costs, before contracting to supply the telecoms service. Listen out for another positive trading update.

Half price offer for Independent readers! Shares in MKM Promotions - a company which organises special offers on hotels, holidays and restaurants - are floating soon at a valuation that is about half that of its nearest rival, Landround.

MKM was set up by and is run by brothers Mark and Victor Koch, and was briefly owned by the British Airways subsidiary AirMiles. The company is raising £1.4m at 50p a share to help expand its new business, Yippee!, which sets up "aspirational experiences" that corporate customers can use for staff or customers. Experiences range from the exhilarating (a MiG flight over Moscow) to the plain terrifying (a day on set at GMTV with Eamon Holmes). Yippee! indeed.