Forte close to selling hotels

MATHEW HORSMAN

and JOHN SHEPHERD

Beleaguered Forte was last night believed to be close to selling its US Travelodge and White Hart hotel chains, as it continued to battle against Granada's hostile pounds 3.3bn bid.

The disposals, which have been planned for several months, were at an advanced stage, and an announcement could come by next week, when Forte is expected to unveil its formal defence document.

Forte erected the for-sale sign over the US Travelodge business two months ago, after receiving several unsolicited offers. There are 490 US Travelodges, most of which are operated on a franchise basis.

The Travelodges are valued by Forte at $150m (pounds 95m). Morgan Stanley, the US investment house, is handling the sale.

Rumours about the disposals helped Forte's shares gain a further 0.5p to 346.5p. Granada's shares dropped 12p to 639p.

Granada's chief executive, Gerry Robinson, yesterday criticised Forte for pushing ahead with the asset sales. "This is not the time to be pushing disposals," he said. "The buyers feel you have your hand up behind your back."

But the Forte camp said the sales were proceeding as planned, and that they were not the result of panic. "We have ruled out nothing, including management buyouts, management buy-ins and a sale to a hotel group," a source close to the company said.

There was speculation that a management buyout group, led by the former US Travelodge executive Paddy Mitchell, could emerge as the favoured buyer of the White Hart chain, at a price of about pounds 100m.

Forte's accounts carry a book value of pounds 130m for the White Hart hotels.

Mr Robinson said Granada would keep the White Hart chain if given the chance. "A lot can be done with these hotels, given the proper attention to detail, cost control and branding," he said.

Meanwhile, Granada confirmed it would meet with as many as five leading institutional shareholders of Forte this week, including the Capital Group, which holds 3 per cent of the shares.

Mr Robinson and his advisers are scheduled to meet Carol Galley, joint vice-chairman at Mercury Asset Management, next week.

MAM, which has 13 per cent of Forte and is the largest single shareholder, was pivotal in the battle for London Weekend Television in early 1994, tendering its shares to the hostile bidder, Granada.

It also emerged last night that the Forte Council, which owns less than 0.1 per cent of the shares but controls 50 per cent of the votes, will meet imminently to discuss the bid situation. Separate meetings with Forte and Granada have been put off, perhaps until next week.

Prospects of a white knight appearing still looked dim, despite frantic efforts by Forte's advisers, Morgan Stanley.

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