Wall Street's ardor for new stock issues has cooled considerably this year, but Washington area entrepreneurs are finding they can raise capital by tapping another group of investors -- penny stock buyers.
No longer able to sell new stocks for prices like the $25 a share fetched by Crown Books last year, emerging companies in the District, Maryland and Virginia are bringing out initial public offerings at less than $5 a share. Thanks to inflation, they qualify as "penny stocks" these days. Half a dozen local firms recently have offered shares at 10 cents to $2 a share. Virtually all the new local offerings this year have been priced under $10. (Profiles of several of the newest Washington businesses are on pages 34 through 37.)
The surprising interest in low-priced issues is one result of what brokers say is a recently opened window of opportunity for companies seeking to raise money in the stock market.
Last year was the best year ever for new stock issues, but the initial public offerings market all but dried up earlier this year when the stock market turned stagnant. Then, along with the summer stock rally came a renewed interest in new offerings.
In the first nine months of this year, companies selling stock to the public for the first time raised about $3 billion, compared with the record $9 billion in initial public offerings through September of 1983, reports New Issues, a newsletter that tracks the market.
Today, underwriters and market watchers agree that buyers of new issues are demanding either lower prices or stronger balance sheets from companies trying to market their shares for the first time. In some cases investors are getting both, buying shares in quality companies without the exorbitant markups made possible by last year's overheated market. In other instances, they're taking a flyer on start-up outfits where the risk that the company will fail is balanced by the rock bottom price of the stock.
New issues can be risky, investors who bought into some new Washington ventures have learned.
Family Entertainment Centers, the Rockville company that opened more than a dozen Chuck E. Cheese Pizza Time Theatre restaurants, was a sexy new issue that raised $5 million when it sold stock at $10.50 a share in September 1982. The stock, which had been selling for 13 cents a share, last week was officially declared worthless as a result of losses that forced the company to seek to reorganize under Chapter 11 of the federal bankruptcy law. Family Entertainment asked that trading in the stock be halted permanently, saying that any reorganization plan would wipe out shareholders.
Also gone is the $5 million that was invested in PC Telemart, a McLean company that wanted to sell computer software by using computer kiosks. Sold for $5 a share in August 1983, the stock is no longer trading and the company is being liquidated.
Nor does the success of the company guarantee that investors in new issues will prosper. Trak Auto and Crown Books were two of 1983's hottest issues when they spun off from Dart Drug Corp. Crown went public in August of 1983 at $25 a share and has shown steadily growing sales and solid profits, but the stock was down to $10.75 Friday. Trak shares that went out at $22 a share in April 1983 closed Friday at $13.
Such results have soured investors and disappointed some companies that have sold stock this year. Gray & Co., the high profile public relations firm, was unable to get the $9 a share it sought for its stock and was forced to put out the issue for $7.50 a share and cut the offering from 600,000 to 500,000 shares. Questech Inc. of McLean faced a similar problem, annoucing an offer of 500,000 shares at $11 to $13, but actually selling 255,000 shares at $8.50.
More than a dozen companies in the Washington area filed plans to go public in the last year and never carried them out. The latest to delay its offering is Boat America Corp., a highly successful Alexandria boating supply dealer whose summer stock offering has been put off at least until the end of the year.
Yet neither the soft stock market nor the disappointing performance of many new issues has kept many Washington companies from raising additional capital.
The Math Box Inc., a Rockville chain of computer stores, went public at $9 a share in January, raising just over $3 million by selling 400,000 shares. Now with first-half sales and profits triple what they were a year ago and the stock holding steady at $9.50, Math Box has announced a secondary offering of 1.1 million shares. The additional cash will build more computer centers.
Also going back to the market again is Farm Fresh Inc., a Norfolk chain of supermarkets that last month announced an offering of 2 million shares that could raise upwards of $36 million. The stock went out at $24.50 in April 1983, later split three for two to the equivalent of $16.33 and closed Friday at $17.25.
Farm Fresh's bread and butter business is an exception among the region's new public companies, which are heavily into computers, communications and biotechnology. In high technologies, a small company with a breakthrough product can earn a high profile and a high-flying stock.
Business Week recently noted that the best performing stock in the second quarter of this year was issued by Verdix Corp., a McLean software developer that has yet to market its first product. Verdix stock jumped from 75 cents a share to $2.19 in less than three months. The company went public at $2 a share in August of 1983.
Verdix is developing software in a computer language called Ada that the Pentagon has chosen as the standard programming lexicon for all Defense Department use.
Another start-up company that is selling stock before it sells its first product is Spectrum Microwave Corp. of Herndon, which raised $4 million with a May offering. Sometime early next year the team of former MCI executives hopes to complete development of a microwave communication system to allow businesses to link together distant facilities without using the local telephone system. Spectrum Microwave went out at $2 a share and recently was quoted at $4.875 asked.
Spectrum's vice chairman, Robert M. Sterling Jr., was an early participant in Digital Switch Corp., another local firm that also sold stock before it made its first product. Digital Switch has since moved to Texas, built its sales to $300 million a year and made millionaires of several investors.
The Securities and Exchange Commission last February kicked Sterling out of the stock brokerage business for three years for allegedly violating SEC regulations in connection with sales of Digital Switch stock.
Also cited by the SEC is Norman Vance, chairman of Nielson & Clark Inc., the Las Vegas firm that is underwriting the stock offering of Smith Collins Pharmaceuticals Inc., a Silver Spring firm that plans to market a treatment for skin cancer. Vance has been charged with selling unregistered stock and operating an unregulated brokerage firm, but has denied the charges.
One of the genuine penny stocks among the new local issues is Security Technology Inc. of Vienna, which raised $1.7 million by selling stock for 15 cents a share. The company plans to use the cash to complete development of its pocket-sized security alarm designed for prisons, college campuses, hospitals and office buildings. What's unique about the alarm is that the audible signal it emits is picked up by special receivers that identify which alarm sounded and where it went off.
Lowest priced of all among new issues in the region is the stock of Sip Stik Inc. of Chester, Va., which is being sold directly by the company without an underwriter for 10 cents a share. Sip Stick Chairman David (Rusty) Chain says his company is raising $500,000 to market a product that "we feel has the opportunity to be the next hula hoop." The first Sip Stik, he explained, was made by a thirsty golfer who fashioned a long skinny canteen from one of the plastic tubes that are used to hold the clubs in a golf bag. The inventor plugged both ends of the tube and installed a long plastic straw that reached all the way to the bottom, making it possible to sip potables while strolling the links.
Sip Stiks now are made in 14-, 24- and 34-inch lengths. They already come in the official colors of all Atlantic Coast Conference sports teams and soon will be licensed to local novelty companies nationwide. Almost a million Sip Stiks have been sold, Chain said, in addition to 5 million shares of Sip Stik stock.