PLM International, in an indication that no-load funds may succeed as a means of raising capital for transport-equipment syndicates, said sales of the industry's first-ever no-load fund have far exceeded expectations.

PLM is one of a small group of firms that raise money by selling shares in equipment funds to the public. The funds are used to buy containers, ships, aircraft and railcars, which are then used by carriers under operating leases lasting two to five years.The firms traditionally have made their money through management fees and up-front sales fees. But with declining interest in funds of all kinds sold with front-end charges, including standard stock mutual funds, PLM earlier this year stopped introducing full-load transportation funds, whose sign-up fees consume as much as 18 percent of a buyer's initial investment.

Instead, PLM rolled out the first no-load transport equipment fund. It will surrender the $15 million to $18 million in fees it generated from each load fund in return for a 15 percent ownership stake in each of its new funds.

Executives of PLM, now profitable after reporting $31 million in losses since 1992, acknowledged the risk attached to the strategy.

''PLM becomes an investor alongside individual investors by paying the up-front fees, and relies upon the overall performance of the fund to earn a return on its investment," said Allen Hirsch, president of PLM Financial Services.

''A no-front-end-fee investment opportunity, where 100 percent of investors' money goes to work for them from day one, was our response to changing attitudes in the syndication market," he said.

Without the fee income, PLM probably will have less ability to invest in equipment for its own account, an issue that other syndicators say is one reason behind their reluctance to make the leap to full no-load sales.

PLM "paved the way in saying that (no-loads) are doable. They took a long, hard look at their structure, and they have seen immediate rewards for that," said Dennis Tietz, president of Cronos Capital Corp. in San Francisco.

But he said the forgone capital and opportunity cost associated with sacrificing load income would be too great.

''I think the trend is going to be toward lower loads, because that is the pressure from the marketplace," he added. "But I don't see anybody following the no-load route of PLM."

The Professional Lease Management Fund I, San Francisco-based PLM's first no-load fund, raised $32 million from mid-March through mid-August, PLM announced Tuesday.

The $9.6 million raised by the no-load PLM fund in July exceeded the amount raised by any other syndication product, including oil and gas and real-estate funds, according to the Stanger Report, a newsletter tracking the syndication market.

The fund will close out when it reaches $100 million, at which point PLM will begin selling a similar fund.

"We are planning to move to this (no-load) format in the future," said Janet Turner, PLM's director of investor relations.