BAT finance arm to merge with insurer

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BAT yesterday confirmed plans to merge its financial services arm with Zurich Insurance. As Lea Paterson reports, the pounds 22bn deal is the latest in a series of large-scale consolidations in the industry.

BAT Industries, the tobacco and financial services group, said yesterday that it was discussing the merger of its financial services division with Zurich Insurance, the Swiss financial services company. The talks "may or may not lead to a merger of BAT Industries' interests in financial services with the Zurich Group," BAT insisted.

But it admitted that talks were "at an advanced stage", and said Zurich's chairman, Rolf Huppi, would be chairman and chief executive of the merged company. Its headquarters will be in Zurich.

BAT is to demerge its pounds 10bn financial services division, which includes UK insurers Eagle Star and Allied Dunbar, along with Farmers in the US. This will then merge on a near-equal footing with pounds 12bn Zurich Insurance. Zurich's shareholders will own 55 per cent of the merged operating company and BAT's 45 per cent through a UK holding company.

Martin Broughton, chief executive of BAT, is tipped to stay with the tobacco business. Sandy Leitch, head of BAT's umbrella financial services group, British American Financial Services (BAFS), is expected to go with the demerged company. Goldman Sachs, Lazard Brothers, BZW and stockbrokers Cazenove are advising on the deal.

The demerger of financial services marks the end of a long period of refocusing for BAT. Following Sir James Goldsmith's pounds 13bn takeover bid in 1989, BAT sold off many of its smaller businesses, including high street retailer Argos and paper manufacturer Wiggins Teape Appleton, leaving it with just two heads, tobacco and financial services. In the six months to June, trading profits from financial services were pounds 593m, compared to pounds 800m from tobacco.

Rumours that BAT was poised to spin off its financial services business have been rife since late 1995, when it began to focus its efforts on its world-wide tobacco business. BAT's key concern about demerger has always been that, on its own, it was unlikely to enhance shareholder value. A link-up with another financial services company was therefore the obvious route out.

The BAT/Zurich Insurance deal is the latest in a series of mergers in the world-wide financial services sector, following last month's link- up between US brokers Smith Barney and investment bank Salomon Brothers and the recent move by Barclays to sell parts of its investment banking arm BZW. More deals are expected in the coming months as large players strive to compete in an increasingly cut-throat market place.