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Gehe re-enters battle for Lloyds

The long-running battle for control of Lloyds Chemists took a new twist yesterday when Gehe, the German pharmaceutical giant that originally bid pounds 650m for the British company, said it was still interested in taking it over - albeit at a lower price.

Gehe cited the profits warning by Lloyds last month as the main reason for a possibly reduced offer.

Karl-Gerhard Eick, chief financial officer at Gehe, said yesterday: "The question at this moment must be whether Lloyds is still worth the price we offered in February. We are assessing with great concern what the profit warning means to us.

"Since our last offer, Lloyds' results went down by nearly 20 per cent. This surely influences the value of the company."

His comments followed the insistence by Ian Lang, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, that for a bid by either Gehe or UniChem, its UK rival, to succeed, either purchaser would have to divest itself of the Lloyds wholesale business by 18 October.

Both the Gehe and UniChem bids for Lloyds have already been referred back to either the Office of Fair Trading or the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.

Mr Eick said: "We can only make a renewed bid for the company if we meet the conditions of the OFT, which means if we can present them buyers by 18 October for seven Lloyds Chemists warehouses, to meet competition concerns.

"We will try to reach agreement with the OFT as soon as possible. There are plenty of potential buyers for the warehouses, mainly British. If we reach agreement with the OFT before the October deadline we might make a renewed bid before that date."

Gehe's latest re-entry into the takeover battle for Lloyds represents another round in a battle that began in February this year.

UniChem initially reached a pounds 548m agreed bid for Lloyds in a deal that would have catapulted the merged organisation ahead of Boots and into top place as the largest chemists chain in the UK, with 1,300 branches and a 35 per cent market share.

The offer would have seen Lloyds directors enjoy bumper payoffs worth more than pounds 4m as a series of cash bids by Gehe eventually reached pounds 650m, compared with a similar cash-and-shares offer by UniChem.

However, the bidding war was in effect kicked into touch by the Department of Trade and Industry, which referred UniChem's bid - mounted at an estimated cost of pounds 20m - to the MMC. Gehe's bid, which the DTI said raised competitive concerns, was passed to the European Commission, which has referred it back to the OFT.