Opportunity ahead for frugal firms

SCOTTISH businesses that have slashed costs are set to have a good 2010 as the economy stabilises, but less frugal competitors will face uncertain times, one of Scotland's leading insolvency experts has warned.

Blair Nimmo, head of restructuring for KPMG in Scotland, said companies that have not taken cost-cutting measures or those still struggling to obtain much-needed bank lending could fail in 2010.

Nimmo said he saw "less doom and gloom" as business managers adjusted to a tough economic climate. But property companies and other "stressed or distressed" firms face increased uncertainty in an election year when stabilising government policy is unlikely to take effect until well into autumn 2010.

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"Policy making will stop soon and electioneering will kick in," he said."Up to May not a lot will happen and there might not be too much clarity. In 2010 an awful lot is going to be down to the uncertainty created by a general election and what happens after that."

For companies with their balance sheets in order, Nimmo predicts 2010 is set to provide opportunities for acquisition and consolidation. But he admits the funding landscape for Scottish companies in particular has changed radically following the banking crisis, in which leading corporate lenders Royal Bank of Scotland and HBOS became heavily reliant on state aid to stay afloat.

Consequently the banks have put a stranglehold on lending and charges for business banking services have shot up. Banking may have been brought to its lowest point, but Nimmo is optimistic that Scotland will still continue to host bank operations.

"For corporate Scotland, it is going to be a different landscape altogether. Both the two major banks were directly and indirectly responsible for a huge amount of activity," he said.

"There is no doubt there will be fundamental changes to the way banks operate. You hope the skills base we have in Scotland will encourage them to keep much of what they already have here in play. You can only hope they survive substantially intact so they can carry on supporting Scotland."

As a corporate recovery specialist, Nimmo has taken a high-profile role in a number of failing companies brought down by the economic crisis.

The biggest was the Dunfermline Building Society, which was rescued by the government and transferred to Nationwide. Others included retailers such as Max Spielmann and Klick Photo and the developers of Taymouth Castle, a 19th-century Perthshire mansion.

"Even in the last year, as someone who messes around in doom and gloom, for us it has not been a pleasant environment at times," he added. "You want to deal with problems of a distressed nature but you want to have solutions. But solutions have been fewand far between."

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Despite the worst economic conditions in living memory and some high-profile business collapses, he pointed out that insolvencies have been lower in 2009 than in previous years. He said: "What surprised us in 2009 was that, having spent a whole lot of time in property, we didn't see the knock-on impact in other sectors to the extent we thought we would. The biggest question for 2010 is whether that is a delay or has it been avoided? Insolvencies are showing continued decline. If you ask the average man in the street what is a busy area, it must be insolvency, but if you look at Scottish insolvency statistics, they are not in any shape or form on the rise."

Much of this is down to the support of the banks, he said, who have resisted putting more companies into administration.

"Have they done that because they want to be terribly nice people? It is in the interest of their business," he said.

Nimmo believes 2010 will bring, if not better times, at least firmer footing. As a result, funding will be available to companies looking to take advantage of distressed assets in the form of private equity, angel funding and even bank lenders.

Lending will be extended to firms in a position to make acquisitions, while poorly performing firms will continue to be left out of the finance loop, he said.

Nimmo added: "Once the view is taken the market has bottomed out, that cash will come out. There will be great opportunities. There are a number of companies that have struggled through this process whose balance sheets are not looking too clever. They may well be looking for exit opportunities, assuming price expectations are realistic.

"Once the position has bottomed out, there is cash out there. People will come into the market but they will be careful what they do.

"Pricing at the top end has already become competitive again.

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"But anything that is stressed or distressed will be under far greater scrutiny and will find access to cash difficult."