City: Tiphook's stunt deserves benefit of the doubt

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The Independent Online
WITH one bound he's free: or maybe. Robert Montagu, effectively written off by the City up to a few days ago as just another failed 1980s entrepreneur, appears to have pulled himself back from the brink with a deal of such stunning bravado that it's hard to believe it can be for real.

With help from Alton Fernando Irby III, a joint partner with Rupert Hambro and George Magan of the boutique corporate finance house Hambro Magan, he's managed to secure the agreement of Transamerica of the US to buy Tiphook's container-leasing operation for pounds 830m, a price so far in advance of expectations that it's left observers open-mouthed in astonishment and admiration.

True, the deal was forced on Tiphook by anxious bankers and in disposing of the container operation, he's effectively sold the family silver. But at least he's secured a price that largely pays off his debts and appears to leave a viable - albeit much smaller - company in its wake. Just a week ago, Tiphook was heading for the rocks with a speed that seemed to make catastrophe inevitable. This was Brent Walker and Queens Moat all over again, brokers and bankers muttered, and few would have bet on shareholders salvaging anything from the wreckage.

Though the situation at Tiphook remains deeply miserable, you have to hand it to Mr Montagu. A great deal of money has been lost in his reckless dash for growth but unlike so many of his peers, at this juncture he at least appears to be staying afloat. Against the odds, he's also managed to pull off the near impossible: a fire sale at non- fire sale prices.

Transamerica ought to have been able to screw a distress seller like Tiphook to the ground, but instead it's agreed to pay a gold plated price. It leaves you wondering whether there's not more to this deal than meets the eye.

Even if not, there's still many a slip 'twixt cup and lip. With the transaction dependent on an adequate due diligence, Transamerica could easily find ways of wriggling out of its agreement: I can't help but think the Tiphook saga has a lot further to run yet. But for the time being, Mr Montagu should perhaps be allowed his moment of glory - as well as the benefit of the doubt.