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Business Comment

Simon English: One in the eye for Utley as Battle of Hastings threatens to turn really nasty


Outlook Grateful recipients of Neil Utley's family Christmas card were charmed as usual. Here's a picture of the insurance tycoon with his family. Here's one of him on a yacht. Here's one one of him outside a mansion. Here's one of him with his lovely wife. Here's one of his three sports cars. Seasonal salutations! Look at how rich I am!

Just how many pictures are there of Mr Utley in this delightful card? "Too many for me to count," concedes an innumerate receiver. "Over the amount of fingers on two hands."

But how restful was Mr Utley's festive holiday? For one thing he had been looking to float Hastings Direct, the car insurer where he is chairman, perhaps at the start of this year. Advisers were appointed many months ago and January was "pencilled in" for the deal, said reports. His PR people say this was never confirmed by them. Bankers do confirm it, so you can choose which bunch of undesirables to believe.

Mr Utley made a bomb when he took the home and motor insurer Equity Red Star private and then later flogged it to Insurance Australia Group. He stepped down from IAG by "mutual consent".

Last week Equity was censured by Lloyd's of London, the first time it has done such a thing to a member in a decade, for "detrimental conduct". It hadn't kept sufficient reserves to pay claims, said the regulators, and had to pay £95,000 to cover the costs of the investigation.

Mr Utley and two others are due to talk to Lloyd's again as part of a "dialogue" about what went wrong. Lloyds could fine the three men or even prevent them from working in the market ever again if they are guilty of misconduct.

He's innocent until proven otherwise, of course, and we wish him all the best.

Back to Hastings, which has mooted a valuation of about £500m in a float. At that price, Mr Utley himself would net about £150m – next year's calender could be even more glossy.

Among at least some bankers there is, shall we say, some scepticism that Hastings is worth that much.

Back in October 2010 Hastings issued a statement announcing that it is "Marching Forward". It had returned to profits of £9m after several years of losses. Hastings was fully turned around. By October 2011, it was boasting of EBITDA profits of £27 million. The stock market would be a fine place for such a firm.

However, it is hard for Mr Utley to make the case just now while the Lloyds issue rumbles on.

Unless this matter is fully resolved, it's safe to assume that the Hastings float is on hold.

The PR folk say it would be anyway, given market conditions and the lack of City appetite for new issues just now. That's far from the only uncertainty facing this business.