Freemans sale to reward Sears shareholders

Sears, the sprawling retail group, yesterday confirmed it was in early-stage talks with several parties to sell Freemans, Britain's third-largest mail order business, in a move that could pave the way for surplus cash to be returned to long-suffering shareholders.

"If there is an opportunity for Sears to sell Freemans or collaborate with a third party, then clearly it is something we will consider," Liam Strong, Sears' chief executive, said.

The talks, described by Mr Strong as being "preliminary" and "exploratory", are understood to be with all of Freemans' main rivals in the mail-order business. These include Great Universal Stores, the market leader and Littlewoods.

"Sears has believed for some time that consolidation within the mail- order market would result in benefits for customers, suppliers and industry participants," Mr Strong continued, adding that a further announcement would be made if anything emerged from the preliminary discussions.

Offers for Freemans, which made profits of pounds 38m on sales of pounds 531m in the year to January 1996, are thought to be in the pounds 350m region.

News that Sears is in cash-raising talks will also encourage hopes that it is serious about paying back a substantial amount of money to its shareholders, possibly in the form of a special dividend.

Last month, after Sears raised pounds 80m from the sale of the St Enoch shopping centre in Glasgow, Mr Strong said: "In the light of the group's cash resources, the board will be reviewing options available for returning any surplus cash to shareholders."

However, news of the Freeman talks failed to impress the City, and the shares closed 0.5p lower at 92.5p.

Freemans operates at the agency end of the mail-order business, where agents receive commission on sales. Analysts say this business is in long- term decline as the direct mail-order market expands.

Mr Strong has been under renewed pressure to placate shareholders since September when Sears revealed interim profits had collapsed from pounds 20m to just pounds 2.5m after taking a pounds 25m provision against exposure to shoe shops sold to Stephen Hinchliffe's failed Facia group. Apart from Selfridges, the flagship London department store, all other divisions reported lower profits.