The Week That Was: Private equity giant to talk peace with unions

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The Independent Online

It had to happen eventually. Damon Buffini, the managing partner of Permira, has become the first executive of a major European private equity firm to take on the industry's rapidly worsening image.

Responding to fierce campaigns being waged by unions, Mr Buffini extended the olive branch last week by offering to meet Paul Kenny, the head of the GMB, his principle critic, in the wake of the job cuts made by Permira at Birds Eye and before that at the AA. After years of criticism, the encounter will be awkward, to say the least.

Another business heavyweight who chose to step out of the shadows last week was Mike Ashley, the publicity-shy head of Sports Direct International, the UK's biggest sports good retailer. Mr Ashley unveiled plans to list his company on the London Stock Exchange at a valuation of as much as £2.23bn. That would mean his stake in the group would be worth a cool £893m. By the end of the week, however, investors were speculating that the flotation, set for later this month, would be priced near the bottom of the range of 250p to 310p.

Speaking of drooping expectations, music giant EMI was slammed by shareholders after it announced its second profit warning in five weeks. The disappointing forecast, blamed on slumping US sales and continued losses due to the rise of digital music, heaped pressure on its chief executive, Eric Nicoli. EMI shares ended the week down 9.8 per cent and nearly 17 per cent off the start of 2007.

Publisher Reed Elsevier, mean- while, put its Harcourt Education textbook business on the auction block. Investors cheered the decision, sending its shares up 6 per cent by the end of the week. Reed Elsevier bought the business in 2000 for $4.65bn (£2.4bn). It hired UBS last week in the hope of getting at least that much back. The suspicion is that a private equity firm will be the most likely buyer.

On the other side of the world, Vodafone beat off four other bids to bag a controlling stake in India's Hutchison Essar for $11.1bn.

First Choice, the package travel group, was also hoping for a deal but was left out in the cold by MyTravel. The latter had expressed interest in buying First Choice's short-haul business but surprised everyone by instead announcing a merger with Thomas Cook. The deal will allow the combined entity to reduce costs and compete more effectively against no-frills airlines and travel websites. First Choice, meanwhile, is stuck with a business it doesn't want. The company's shares lost 14.9 per cent on the week, while MyTravel gained 33.3 per cent.

Mervyn King, the governor of the Bank of England, and his opposite number in the US, Ben Bernanke, gave differing messages last week. Mr King left little doubt that another rise in the base lending rate would be necessary to head off inflation and slow house price growth in Britain.

But Mr Bernanke was more optimistic than expected in his assessment of the US economy, sending the Dow Jones to close at an all-time high of 12,767.