Goldsmiths fuels rumours with glum trading report

GOLDSMITHS, the jewellery retailer, issued a downbeat Christmas trading statement yesterday amid speculation that the company will be taken private in the next two weeks.

Reporting sales that were "disappointing and below expectations" for the four weeks to 2 January, Jurek Piasecki, Goldsmiths' chairman and chief executive, declined to comment on a possible management buy-out. This followed a statement just before Christmas saying Goldsmiths is in preliminary talks with a potential bidder.

However, it is understood that the deal is likely to be finalised within a fortnight, led by Mr Piasecki and backed by Alchemy, the venture capital group. It is expected to be pitched at about 165p a share, valuing the company at around pounds 40m. Goldsmiths shares fell 15p to 154p yesterday.

Goldsmiths, which has 154 outlets, yesterday reported a 2.6 per cent fall in like-for-like sales in the four weeks to 2 January. Mid-priced jewellery in the pounds 400 to pounds 1500 price bracket sold well, but the top and bottom ends were disappointing.

Mr Piasecki said: "I think consumers are nervous and I hope the Monetary Policy Committee knocks down interest rates again when it meets this week."

The company is thought to have decided that it no longer needs the stock market and that the costs of retaining its listing are no longer worthwhile. Retailing is one of several sectors where venture capital companies are circling due to low share prices. Others include engineering and textiles.

Yesterday, a study by Close Brothers Corporate Finance showed a sharp rise in the number of quoted companies going private and predicted a doubling of the number in 1999.

Last year 25companies were taken private, of which 18 were valued at less than pounds 50m. Close Bros said the trend would continue as smaller companies grow frustrated at UK fund managers' aversion to them.