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Arnault airs fresh merger ideas

Guinness and Grand Metropolitan were last night studying fresh merger proposals tabled by Bernard Arnault, chairman of the French LVMH luxury goods group, at a crunch meeting over lunch in Paris yesterday.

Mr Arnault, who is objecting to the straight pounds 23bn merger planned between the two UK companies, wants to form an independently quoted company comprising the drinks operations of LVMH, GrandMet, and Guinness.

However, the new plan looks set to be rejected by GrandMet and Guinness, despite Mr Arnault conceding some ground from his original proposals, which would have involved all three companies owning stakes in a demerged but unquoted drinks giant.

A spokesman for LVMH, which owns the Moet Hennessy drinks group, claimed that "Guinness and GrandMet have agreed to study our proposals ... this is a step in the right direction".

A statement released on behalf of Tony Greener and George Bull, respective chairmen of Guinness and GrandMet who both attended yesterday's meeting, was less optimistic. "We made it clear to Mr Arnault that we are, of course, open to any proposals provided they create additional value for our shareholders beyond our existing proposal, and that this is fairly shared between them," the statement said.

Drinks analysts believe that Mr Arnault is hoping to swap LVMH's 66 per cent stake in Moet Hennessy along with his substantial shareholdings in Guinness and GrandMet for up to a 40 per cent stake in the combined spirits group. And at the same time, they believe he has made it clear that he was unwilling to sell LVMH's 66 per cent stake in Moet Hennessy at any price.

If the two UK companies reject Mr Arnault's proposals and talks between the two sides break down then LVMH will continue its legal battle to acquire Guinness's 34 per cent stake in Moet Hennessy. It claims the GrandMet- Guinness merger signifies a change of control of Guinness and gives it a pre-emptive right to buy back the minority shareholding.