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Originally published Saturday, March 16, 2013 at 8:01 PM

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Hot stock, cold reality at steamy Baristas

Seattle Times business staff

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Great coffee and the girls are very professional! ive been invested in this company for... MORE

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Baristas Coffee whipped up some hot penny-stock trading this month when — much like the young women in revealing outfits who run the company’s 11 drive-through espresso shops — it suggested a lot more than it delivered.

“Baristas receives Nasdaq Capital Market Symbol ‘BAPI,’ ” said the headline on a March 6 press release. It went on to say Baristas “has completed all requirements and ... its application to receive a symbol to be traded on the Nasdaq Capital Market has been approved.”

Someone must have thought that was a big step. In the little-regulated OTC Pink Sheets marketplace where Baristas now trades, the stock price doubled on the sixth, then doubled again the next day.

Trading volume jumped 80-fold overnight — from 196,000 shares on March 5 to 17 million the next day, and then to 31 million on March 7.

In fact, however, obtaining a trading symbol means little. “All you have to do is go on line, fill out a very basic form, and request a symbol,” says a person familiar with the requirements for listing on the major exchanges. “The bottom line is there are no requirements for the company to reserve a symbol — none whatsoever.”

CEO Barry Henthorn said late this past week that his company on March 14 applied for an actual Nasdaq listing, paying a nonrefundable $5,000 fee to begin the review process.

He says his earlier media release did acknowledge there were further steps to go before the company could be listed and traded on the lowest of Nasdaq’s three tiers.

“I’m not pretending it’s an easy task, but it’s the direction we’ve chosen to take the company and we’ve been counseled we can get there,” he says in an interview.

Henthorn seems fuzzy on the details, however.

Referring to the three alternative ways to qualify for the Nasdaq Capital Market, he says, “We meet virtually every standard now.”

But Henthorn admits, when pressed, that “we’re not going to qualify under the net income standard.” As for the $50 million market capitalization standard, Baristas is about 65 percent short, even after the recent bump in its stock price; its 230 million shares outstanding were collectively worth about $17 million as of Friday’s closing price of 7.7 cents.

And according to the latest, unaudited financial report it filed with OTC Markets, which runs the Pink Sheets market, Baristas is about 90 percent short of meeting the third alternative Nasdaq Capital Markets standard of having $5 million in shareholder equity.

Still, he says, “We’re very confident we’re going to get there.”

Henthorn says the company is improving corporate governance, working on deals “to get a bit stronger” financially and preparing audited financial statements. Those financials, unlike its current reports, would need to be filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Henthorn says he owns “around 70 million” shares and company president Troy Scott Steciw owns about 50 million. “Any sales by company insiders have been very nominal,” he adds.

In his timetable, getting on Nasdaq is “going to take around six months to accomplish,” says Henthorn. “We’re excited about it. We’re scared to death, too; I’m not going to lie to you.”

On the other hand, the listing could wind up like some of Henthorn’s other unfulfilled ideas: a Baristas-based reality-TV show whose promotional tagline was “Serving the finest coffee, one smokin’ hot chick at a time,” and more recently a bid to buy Tully’s Coffee that was left in the dust by better-funded rivals.

— Rami Grunbaum

Local white-collar hiring tops among major cities

The hiring outlook for white-collar professionals is brighter in Seattle than in any top metropolitan area, according to a survey conducted for staffing firm Robert Half International. “Brighter,” though, is still very much a relative term.

The national survey of chief financial officers at companies with 20 or more employees, including more than 100 from the Seattle area, found 20 percent locally saying their companies planned to add full-time accounting, legal, marketing, human-resources and other professional positions in the second quarter.

That may not sound like much, but nationally only 13 percent said their companies were in expansion mode — and a greater number said their companies had frozen white-collar hiring.

In Seattle, by contrast, only 9 percent of respondents said they were in a hiring freeze; 70 percent said they planned to fill vacancies as they occurred but not grow payrolls.

Among the 20 other metro areas in the survey, the only ones to come close to Seattle’s expansion expectations were Houston (19 percent) and Cincinnati (18 percent). At the bottom were Denver, where only 7 percent of respondents predicted expansion, and Des Moines and Salt Lake City (8 percent each).

Josh Warborg, RHI’s district president, said local demand is particularly high in accounting, Web design, software development and medical-records management. Financial and business analysts also are in high demand, he said.

Warborg said the region’s biggest employers — the Boeings and Microsofts and Amazons — are driving much of the demand.

“My sense is that a number of these large keystone organizations are doing well enough to clear out the talent pool, so if you’re a $200 million manufacturer who needs that type of labor, you’re going to have a hard time finding people,” he said.

An inflow of venture-capital money also appears to be spurring hiring by young companies, Warborg said. Washington companies attracted $931.5 million in venture capital last year, 69 percent more than in 2011, according to the most recent MoneyTree report from PricewaterhouseCoopers and the National Venture Capital Association.

“A company gets $42 million and all of a sudden they say, ‘We need someone who can do the accounts payable and accounts receivable, manage the day-to-day money and oh, by the way, plan the entire financial future of the company,’” he said.

— Drew DeSilver

Growing BECU earns new regulatory scrutiny

Tukwila-based BECU has solidified its position as the nation’s fourth-largest credit union, ending 2012 with a whopping $11.08 billion in assets and 801,000 members.

BECU’s size also earned it a new regulator, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and new limits on the fees it can charge merchants to accept its debit cards — both due to the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial-overhaul law, several aspects of which apply only to banks and other financial institutions with assets of $10 billion or more.

Assets at BECU (whose seldom-used legal name remains Boeng Employees’ Credit Union) grew a brisk 11.4 percent last year, according to data from research firm SNL Financial. Deposits grew by 10.9 percent, to $10.06 billion, and return on average assets improved to 1.34 percent from 1.2 percent.

Tom Berquist, BECU’s senior vice president for member strategies, said CFPB staff already have paid the credit union a few get-to-know-you visits. A full examination, focusing on BECU’s loan disclosures and other consumer practices, will follow this fall.

“Their whole premise is, are consumers getting the information they need to make good financial decisions?” Berquist said.

BECU’s main regulators will continue to be the National Credit Union Administration and the state Division of Credit Unions within the Department of Financial Institutions.

Dodd-Frank’s limits on “interchange fees,” which merchants pay to financial institutions for accepting their debit cards, applies only to card issuers with $10 billion or more in assets. The limits kick in for BECU on July 1; BECU estimates that they will cut its interchange-fee income this year by a net $4 million compared with 2012.

Berquist said BECU hopes to recoup that income, not by raising other fees or imposing new ones, but through overall membership growth as well as growth in its mortgage, small-business lending and other business lines.

— Drew DeSilver

Skagit Countyto strut its stuff

Most Puget Sound residents probably associate Skagit County with tulips or eagles. Business executives from elsewhere generally know even less.

So the plain-spoken folks of Skagit County are inviting a couple hundred company CEOs from across the U.S. and Canada to what they’ve disarmingly dubbed “SchmoozeCruise” — a three-day chance to see not just the county’s pastoral charms. but also its manufacturing prowess.

If they need more than the lure of free food and accommodations provided by local companies, the invited VIPs are promised tours of a dozen factories, including top-tier producers of aerospace tooling, robotic milking machines, seafood, fishing and patrol boats and composite materials.

“People don’t realize we have some pretty significant manufacturing here,” says Don Wick, executive director of the Economic Development Association of Skagit County.

But with unemployment at 10.4 percent in January, Skagit County also has by far the highest joblessness among the six counties along I-5 between Olympia and the Canadian border.

The April 18-20 event is “a brand-new endeavor,” says Wick. He figures the timing is right, with the nation’s economy gradually expanding.

It ties in with SchmoozeFair, a local business-to-business expo that typically fills an empty flower-bulb warehouse one afternoon with about 1,000 guests, he says.

The association’s marketing director, Terica Taylor, says the 250 invited companies are all outfits that are looking to expand or relocate in the next five years and have made some contacts with Skagit County before.

Wick is hoping 30 or 40 will accept the offer.

To offset some of the effort’s cost, says Taylor, the association is also selling $15 tickets for a tour of those same factories so “the everyday average citizen” can see what goes on behind those industrial-park walls.

— Rami Grunbaum

Comments: Rami Grunbaum - rgrunbaum@seattletimes.com or 206-390-3144

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