BAT heading for twin-track future

IT LOOKS like commercial suicide: to spend dollars 1bn ( pounds 660m) on buying a business in an industry that is about to be heavily taxed, in a country that is baying for its products to be banned.

But that is what the laid- back Martin Broughton, chief executive of BAT Industries, has done in snapping up American Tobacco, maker of Lucky Strike and Pall Mall cigarettes in the United States.

'The new tax will happen,' conceded Mr Broughton, 'though we don't know how much it will be. As for prohibition, that's a non-starter. All it achieves is black markets and no revenue for the government.'

But Mr Broughton sees the deal generating the cash to finance rapid expansion in former Communist territories. American Tobacco is churning out profits of more than dollars 160m a year, and there will be savings from combining overheads and sales forces. With BAT's existing US operations, the two businesses will have nearly a fifth of the American cigarette market.

Meanwhile, BAT is negotiating to build or buy cigarette factories in Russia, Uzbekistan, Kirgizstan and, perhaps most surprising of all, still-Communist Vietnam.

The group is also negotiating with ITC, one of India's biggest companies, to set up joint ventures in tobacco and life assurance.

'It's a wild generalisation,' Mr Broughton explained, 'but in Asia and Africa you are talking about populations that have difficult lives and few pleasures. Smoking, beer and sex - that's about it. And the liberalisation of the former Communist countries has nearly tripled the world tobacco market available to us.'

As it will take possibly 20 years before spending in these countries catches up with the West, however, BAT will depend on America and Europe continuing to puff away to keep its coffers topped up.

Not all the money generated by the deal will flow into cigarette factories. An increasing amount is being earmarked for the group's financial services operations.

Last week, BAT's ambitions in that direction were highlighted by Lloyds Bank's bid for Cheltenham & Gloucester Building Society - one of a number of societies BAT has looked at, to complement its Eagle Star and Allied Dunbar insurance arms in Britain.

Financial services and tobacco are roughly the same size in BAT, and the plan is to keep them neck and neck.

'We would like two roughly equal businesses,' said Mr Broughton, who used to be chairman of Eagle Star and who - unlike his cigarette-loving chairman, Sir Patrick Sheehy - is no more than an occasional cigar smoker.

Although BAT has bought Eagle Star, Allied Dunbar and the US-based Farmers Insurance in the past dozen years, Mr Broughton admitted that the group had done little until recently to bring them into a cohesive operation.

That has changed, however, with the creation of Threadneedle Asset Management to house Eagle, Allied and their combined pounds 30bn of investment management activities. Paul Manduca, deputy managing director of Henderson Administration, has been recruited to run the investment side.

Mr Broughton said: 'There is a distinction in the City between the investment houses and the investment departments of insurance companies. The investment houses are the Premier League.

'Allied and Eagle's investment performance was very good, but I hope Threadneedle will now be seen as a leading investment house.'

If all goes well, it will then be rolled out across the world, like its highly successful counterpart at Prudential Corporation. UK retail savings is seen as one of a four-legged financial services strategy, with continental Europe, America and the Far East.

''We have a partner in Taiwan and have applied for a licence to offer life assurance there,' Mr Broughton reported. 'We are also seeking licences in India and China as soon as we are allowed.'

While America is largely a question of filling in and bolting on to Farmers, continental Europe is proving more problematical.

'We have been surprised to get considerably more opportunities there than we expected,' Mr Broughton said, 'but they all seem too expensive.'

On UK building societies, Mr Broughton disclosed: 'We have had a number of discussions with a number of societies at different times. None is at the level where there is any immediacy.

'All the players know we are interested. We have certain preferences and I would be surprised if any of them would contemplate a transaction without considering us.'

(Photograph omitted)