Cowie may set sights on buying Trimoco

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THERE was fresh speculation in the City that T Cowie may turn its acquisitive sights on Trimoco, having narrowly failed to take over Henlys, a rival motors group, with a pounds 32m offer.

Shares in Cowie, which managed to lay claim to 42.63 per cent of Henlys at the end of two months of hostilities, yesterday rose 5p to 126p.

Henlys shares fell by 5p to 62p, but Trimoco rose 1p to 19.5p to stand 2p above the hostile cash terms on the table from Hartwell, controlled by the Jameel family of Saudi Arabia.

While Gordon Hodgson, chief executive of Cowie, ruled out an imminent bid, he said: 'We have talked to the Jameels in the past.'

A Cowie spokesman added that the group was still interested in growing through the acquisition of motor dealerships.

Further grist for the rumour mongers' mill comes from the fact that Sir Tom Cowie, chairman of Cowie, and Roger Smith, chief executive of Trimoco, are friends, often going shooting together.

Cowie also owns nearly 5 per cent of Trimoco's shares, and Sir Tom is recently rumoured to have bought a small stake.

Turning to Henlys, Mr Hodgson highlighted several areas where he thought Cowie had gone wrong. 'We started with nothing, and it was always going to be difficult to get to 51 per cent.

'Fund managers tend to stay with current management, and we hope they are right because we have a 9.9 per cent investment,' he said.

'Henlys' management,' he added, 'has made many claims about future performance and, as a major shareholder, Cowie will watch with interest to see if these claims are fulfilled.'

That point was not overlooked by the jubilant Henlys camp. Robert Wood, chief executive, said: 'We have a recognised plan. We have to deliver, and we will.'

He said he was not unduly concerned about Cowie breathing down Henlys' neck as a big shareholder. 'We will have to develop a good, sensible relationship.'

Another relationship that may be forged could be with David Matthews, former chairman and chief executive of Henlys.

Mr Matthews, who pledged his 7 per cent holding to Cowie, yesterday reiterated his interest in buying Plaxton, Henlys' troubled coach-building operation.

'I have no objection to making an offer. My interest remains the same,' said Mr Matthews.

In reply, Michael Higgins of Charterhouse, financial adviser to Henlys, said: 'The board of Henlys has stated its commitment to turning round the business (Plaxton).'

But asked whether Henlys would sell at the right price, he said: 'The board will act in the best interests of shareholders.'