Bass embarks on pounds 2bn international acquisition trail

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The Independent Online
Bass said yesterday it had earmarked pounds 2bn to spend on acquisitions. Andrew Yates assesses the likely targets and reflects on mounting speculation that the group is about to launch a huge disposal programme.

Sir Ian Prosser, Bass' chairman, said yesterday: "We are looking to expand the group internationally and we will look for acquisitions ... to move along that path." He said Bass was particularly keen to expand Bass' hotel businesses in continental Europe and the Far East.

"We would look at group's of hotels as well as individual sites at the right price," he added.

Analysts believe Bass has been eyeing up European acquisitions for the last few months including the Inter-Continental chain. However, the strong recovery in the hotel market has seen the value of hotel chains rise rapidly and the group has been forced to look further afield for opportunities. One analyst said: "The economic problems in the Far East has resulted in prices falling over there."

The group is understood to have ruled out a share buy back for the time being while is hunts for purchases. "We know our shareholders will be pleased if we can make a strategic acquisition," Sir Ian said.

Bass is continuing to look for acquisitions in the pub business. But it ruled out buying Merrydown, the troubled cider and alcopop maker which is currently under the bid spotlight.

Bass also unveiled plans to create 5,000 new jobs. It is spending pounds 680m on a huge xpansion programme. pounds 300m has been allocated for its pub business. Its established themed pubs such as O'Neills, its Irish bar chain and All Bar One, will be rolled out rapidly. Bass will also pump money into new chains such as the upmarket brand Bar Coast and It's A Scream student pubs. It hopes to double the number of branded pubs in its estate to more that 1,000 within two years.

In addition Bass will role out its upmarket Crown Plaza hotel chain across Europe and is actively seeking new franchises for its Holiday Inn brand.

However, Bass' pre-tax profits for the year to September fell 29 per cent fall to pounds 477m due to a pounds 177m write down in the value of Gala, its bingo business. Industry sources believe the move is a forerunner to the sale of the business. Several venture capitalist groups are understood to be vying to buy Gala for around pounds 250m.

The Government's decision to block the acquisition of fellow brewer Carlsberg- Tetley also cost the group pounds 35m.

That said, underlying operating profits rose to pounds 796m (pounds 752m). Coral, its betting chain, had a great year. Profits more than doubled to pounds 33m thanks to the introduction of new games such as 49s and the introduction of slot machines in bookies. Beer profits rose 7 per cent to pounds 168m in a static market due to the strong performance of leading brands such as Carling. However, sales of Hooper's Hooch, the leading alcopop brand, fell 13 per cent as the market for the controversial alcoholic soft drinks fell off a cliff as large retailers pulled them off their shelves.

Bass has put 175 of its tenanted pubs up for sales. It indicated that further sales were likely and speculation is mounting that it could sell its entire tenanted estate.

Investment column, p24