Bidder wins converts in Littlewoods clan

SENIOR members of the Moores family, who own the Littlewoods retail and football pools empire, have given early indications of support for the pounds 1.2bn approach from Barry Dale, the company's former chief executive.

Mr Dale, who must secure 75 per cent of the family's votes to succeed, is believed to be confident of substantial shareholder approval.

Several shareholders are understood to have been in touch with Mr Dale's team to voice their willingness to sell at his likely price of more than pounds 8 a share.

If Mr Dale's bid is to proceed, he must first obtain a majority vote at a shareholders' extraordinary general meeting in December. He and his heavyweight City backers - Prudential, Legal & General, Electra, Apex and Candover - are not prepared to make a formal offer without first examining the company's books. More than 50 per cent of the shareholders must agree to allow them to complete their due diligence.

Such are the worries about the impact of the National Lottery on Littlewoods' pools business and lacklustre high-street trading in the retail division that the Dale camp is insisting on access to the accounts before making a final move.

Although Mr Dale has his opponents among the family, principally Lady Grantchester, daughter of Sir John Moores, the firm's late founder, they are not regarded as an insurmountable obstacle. Shares that were once concentrated in the children of Sir John and Cecil, his brother, who ran the pools side, have now been dispersed down the gen-erations.

No individual family member speaks for more than 6 per cent. The largest shareholder is a charitable trust linked to Peter Moores, son of Sir John, which accounts for 12.5 per cent.

After that, the holdings fall away. The four children of the first marriage of John Moores - Sir John's eldest son - hold a combined 24 per cent, while those of his second marriage have 13 per cent.

Lady Grantchester's side of the family has 11 per cent. Janatha, Sir John's other daughter, and her relatives, account for another 9 per cent, while Cecil's heirs hold a combined 23 per cent.

Positive encouragement to Mr Dale is thought to span the generations, coming from older and younger members of the family frustrated at having their cash tied up in the group.

Leonard Van Geest, Littlewoods' chairman, acknowledged there may be shareholders who want to sell. However, he stressed that if a sale was what they desired "we could go about it in a different way". A part sale, he said, was a possibility. "If a real volume wants to sell, we will organise a proper sale - either in terms of value or in parts."

Mr Van Geest said he would regard 50 per cent of shareholders wanting out as sufficient to force the issue.

The Littlewoods chairman expressed surprise that Mr Dale had not made a straight bid but had held fire pending examination of the accounts. "It surprises me - maybe it's coming, I don't know," said Mr Van Geest.

As an ex-chief executive, Mr Dale should be perfectly capable of putting an accurate value on the company, according to Mr Van Geest,.

Mr Van Geest's robust response is part of a hardening of attitudes on both sides. The normally press-shy Littlewoods is going on the offensive, briefing City journalists and stressing changes were afoot long before Mr Dale made his approach.

Meanwhile, speculation is growing that a counter-offer may still be made - from someone more amenable to some members of the family than Mr Dale, who was dismissed earlier this year. Littlewoods casualties also include North West Water chairman, Sir Desmond Pitcher.

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