The Alternative Investment Market is one of the world's leading markets for smaller and growing companies. From humble beginnings in 1995 with just ten companies, AIM has grown into a world class equity market for fast-growing companies, and now has more than 1,600 companies with a total market capitalisation of around £107bn.

Oxfordshire, with its technology and bioscience focus has proved to be a fertile ground for companies seeking admission to AIM.

Many Oxford University spin-outs are now listed on AIM including Oxford Catalysts, Oxonica and Celoxica.

One of the latest of the county's companies to join AIM is Banbury-based Westminster Group, which supplies system solutions and products to the security, defence, fire protection and safety markets.

Westminster sought an AIM listing to enhance the profile of the group and to provide additional funding to grow the business.

The flotation will enable it to increase its marketing and sales functions and has provided working capital which is required to tender for and undertake some of the larger contracts for which Westminster is increasingly competing.

What are the benefits of joining a public market such as AIM?

l To gain access to capital for growth, and the opportunity to raise further finance for future development both at the time of flotation and subsequently through later fund raising.

l To enhance the company's status with its customers and suppliers l To increase the capability of attracting quality people to the company and making employee share schemes more attractive, which can act as a boost to employees' long-term motivation l To create a market for the company's shares, so attracting further prospective investors and potentially to give existing shareholders the opportunity to realise part of their investment.

AIM was established as a market for smaller, growing companies that might not be able to meet the more stringent criteria for listing on the main market of the London Stock Exchange.

Its companies follow a more flexible set of rules called the AIM Rules for Companies and have a simplified admission process.

As such the regulatory framework is designed to be more balanced and less burdensome than traditional markets.

However, the decision to float on AIM is significant and a board should consider carefully whether it is the best way to achieve the company's long term objectives.

Consideration should be given to the following factors: l The legal obligations of the company will be more onerous than for a private company and investors will scrutinise the actions and results of the company to a far greater degree l There is likely to be a greater degree of transparency in terms of disclosing the company's financial position and details of other business developments l A listing on a public market poses a greater risk of volatility in the company's share price as it may be affected by market conditions outside of its control - as illustrated by recent dramatic slump in share prices The company will need to appoint a variety of advisers to guide it through the admission process.

Under AIM Rules, the company must appoint and retain a nominated adviser (often referred to as a "Nomad") and a broker.

A Nomad must be a firm approved by the London Stock Exchange (LSE). This is an important role as the LSE does not itself examine whether an individual company is appropriate for AIM but instead delegates the task to the Nomad.

The Nomad will carry out extensive due diligence to establish whether the company is appropriate for AIM.

The company must also appoint and retain a broker, which can be the same firm as the Nomad. As part of the listing process, the broker will help the company to raise finance on the market. Following listing, the broker will act as the principal interface between the company and the investment community.

In addition, lawyers (both for the company and the Nomad), reporting accountants, public relation consultants and other advisors play a key role in a successful float.

If used to its full potential, a public listing on the AIM market can be an attractive source of finance to growing companies, whether as a partial exit for founders or as a means of taking the company to its next natural stage of development.

n Contact: Will Axtell at Charles Russell, 0845 259 0096,

Preparation: Retain Advisers: Nomad, broker, legal team, accountants and PR agency l Review corporate structure, including confirming that shares are freely transferable l Review executive service agreements l Company's solicitors send out due diligence and directors' questionnaires Week 1: Reply to directors' and due diligence questionnaires l Corporate advisers/company's solicitors begin drafting admission document l Legal team and accountants perform due diligence exercise Week 3: Draft accountants' financial report and legal due diligence report circulated l Settlement arrangements checked Week 5: Commence verification process Week 7: Board meeting to approve service agreements, Pathfinder Admission Document (for marketing), verification notes and working capital report, etc l Issue Pathfinder Admission Document if offering to institutional investors l Ten Day Announcement submitted to AIM l Company adopts share dealing code and appoints corporate governance committees Week 8: Marketing, road shows and other relevant publicity l Finalise placing agreement, send out placing letters Week 9: Board meeting to confirm issue price and approve final admission document l Three Day Application Form submitted to AIM Week 10: Board meeting to approve allotment of shares to investors l Admission announced and becomes effective.