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Burlington may trump French in bid battle for United Biscuits

BURLINGTON Biscuits, the US contender in the increasingly heated tussle for control of United Biscuits, is this week expected to raise its bid for the ailing Hula Hoops and Jaffa Cakes maker for the second time, in order to trump a pounds 1.26bn agreed offer from a rival French consortium.

Burlington - the consortium grouping Hicks, Muse, Tate & Furst, the Texan buy-out firm, and Nabisco, the New Jersey-based food group - has yet to concede defeat even though UB's independent directors have backed the rival Paribas-led bid

Finalrealm - the group fronted by Paribas, Cinven and Deutsche Bank, which plans to cream off a portion of UB's assets and sell them to Danone, France's biggest food company - is offering 265p a share.

Analysts say Burlington, which raised its bid to 254p on Thursday, has already bought 30 per cent of UB in the market and could easily afford a higher bid. They believe Burlington is unlikely to bow out gracefully at this stage.

"Knowing Hicks, Muse, they will not give up that easily," said one analyst. The bid battle for UB was "almost a mirror image" of the race to acquire Hillsdown Holdings, another UK biscuits company, which Hicks eventually gobbled up this summer after a drawn-out contest with Candover Investments.

One advantage the Hicks-Nabisco team has over its French rival is that it has already built up a 35 per cent stake in UB. Not only does this make it difficult for Finalrealm to gain the 50 per cent approval it needs to close its agreed deal, but it leaves Burlington with a strong financial advantage if it chooses to increase its own offer.

Burlington has already acquired nearly 30 per cent of UB's shares for 254p or less and gained irrevocable undertakings for 4.5 per cent from Phillips & Drew, the fund manager. An analyst said: "If Burlington offered 270p a share, the all-in price before expenses would be 263p a share," - below the level of Finalrealm's current offer.

Burlington has already made two offers for UB. Under the Burlington proposal Leslie van de Walle, UB's chief executive, would keep the top job.