What I learned from 15 years of investing in small companies

Games Workshop has risen 20-fold in five years but had been a recovery stock three times previously. The lure of recovery is the prospect of multiplying your money in a share everyone else hates but it’s not an area to bet the farm on.

I was charmed into Bluebird Toys by its CEO, Torquil Norman (father-in-law of venture capitalist Kate Bingham) who had been a popular client in my short spell in corporate finance. The success of “Polly Pocket” caused the shares, previously on the rocks, to multiply. The version aimed at boys, “Mighty Max”, was named after me after a humorous exchange at the Earl’s Court toy fair. I cashed in soon after.

My most spectacular success was the most reckless. I bought two million shares in Cannon Street Investments at 2p, down more than 99% from their peak in late 1992 on the sole basis that Tom Long, whom I knew of as the former CEO of Souza Cruz (a subsidiary of British American Tobacco) had become chairman. The shares multiplied tenfold in a year or two as a messy, over-borrowed conglomerate was streamlined through disposals. I then sold.

Regrets: I’ve had a few

My biggest regrets are not the duds I bought but the great companies I missed. Channel Express floated in the mid-1980s as an air-freight business. Its boss, Philip Meeson, had been a Red Arrows pilot and then began importing 2CV cars from France and selling them from a lot on the King’s Road, London. The site was converted into a BMW dealership and later sold. Though Meeson was clearly a serial-entrepreneur, I didn’t see a long-term investment thesis. The company is now called Jet2 and the shares have multiplied more than 100-fold.

Another regret was Asos. In early 2004, we identified this online retailer, whose idea was to replicate cheaply and quickly clothes worn by celebrities, hence the name “As Seen on Screen”. We recommended the shares to our clients in the monthly newsletter at 25p… and suggested taking profits after they had doubled in six months. The shares then multiplied 100-fold in ten years but have had a yo-yo ride since. I hope some clients didn’t sell.

What are the lessons? The best long-term investments are not the get-rich-quickly companies but those offering long-term compound growth. Holding them requires nerve and patience as the shares are often volatile and can stagnate for long periods. It is tempting to give up and sell. If an investment is not suitable for the long-term, it’s best to be clear about that at the start as it makes selling easier.

Buying for recovery can also be hugely profitable but these are rarely “forever” investments. Finally, great investments are not found through diligent research and endless company presentations but through casual recommendations, chance encounters and inspiration, not perspiration. As John le Carré wrote: “A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world.”

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