Goldsmiths withdraws one offer for Signet

Goldsmiths, the jewellery chain, has withdrawn one of its two bids for the UK jewellery businesses of Signet, the former Ratners group. It is understood that the company decided to withdraw its offer, which was being backed by Schroder Ventures, on Friday evening.

As a management buy-out has also been ruled out, the decision leaves the other Goldsmiths bid as the only known candidate left in the bid battle.

Under the remaining Goldsmiths bid, venture capital group Apax & Partners is offering pounds 250m-pounds 280m for the H Samuel and Ernest Jones chains. Apax would also acquire Goldsmiths, taking the group private. If the offer was successful, Goldsmiths' chief executive, Jurek Piasecki, would be placed in charge of the enlarged group.

Signet declined to comment on the list of bidders yesterday or a possible timescale. However, it is understood that a final decision will not be taken for another two to three weeks.

Although the Apax-led deal is the only definite candidate, it is possible that another bidder could have entered the fray, either from another sector or from outside the UK.

The list of possible bidders has thinned out quickly over recent weeks. Argos, the catalogue retailer, made an offer that was considered to be too low. Nathan Light, the former head of Sterling, Signet's US business, is not on the list. A UK management buy-out led by Lawrence Cooklin can now also be discounted. Mr Cooklin, the former Burton finance director who now runs Signet's UK's businesses, has been conducting the presentations to the bidders. This would have caused a clear conflict of interest if he was also preparing his own offer for the stores.

Gerald Ratner was also intersted in buying the stores back but has not been successful and is concentrating on his Tobacco Dock factory outlet shopping centre near London's Tower Bridge.

Although the bid list now seems to have been whittled down to a shortlist of one, it is possible that Signet will choose not to sell H Samuel and Ernest Jones. Signet's chairman, Jim McAdam, has stuck to his resolution that the two chains are only for sale "at the right place".

Although trading has improved, the company is still under pressure to sell the businesses as it desperately needs the cash.