Hanson buys into American house builder: Conglomerate confident of 'pretty good timing' for dollars 116m deal

HANSON, the coal mining to tobacco and building materials conglomerate, is extending its exposure to house building in North America.

Through Beazer, the homes and aggregates firm bought in 1991, Hanson is paying dollars 116m ( pounds 76m) for part of the Watt Housing Corporation.

Hanson is buying 37 developments representing 3,800 plots of land for residential use. Twenty are in California, and the rest in Phoenix, Arizona, and Las Vegas, Nevada.

Martin Taylor, vice-chairman of Hanson, said the plots would complement Beazer's house-building operation in south-eastern states. 'Both the US as a whole and the south-western states are lifting out of recession so this is pretty good timing.'

In 1992, Beazer built 1,200 houses in the US. Last year Watt Housing built 949, giving Beazer the chance to increase output by 60 per cent. Beazer has a larger house-building operation in the UK, where last year it built 5,000 homes.

Beazer's combined US and UK house-building operations were worth dollars 602m in turnover for 1992 and netted pre-tax profits of dollars 80m.

The dollars 116m purchase price represents a 20 per cent discount to the value credited in Watt's books. Mr Taylor said: 'The asset values in Watt's books reflect historic property prices. We are able to come to our conclusions without being saddled with those.'

Though large in absolute terms, the Watt acquisition is small fry for Hanson. Watt sold 949 homes last year for dollars 165m - or 1.2 per cent of Hanson's total turnover for the year to 30 September (at today's exchange rates).

The whole of Beazer's house-building operation contributed just 5 per cent to Hanson's overall profits for the year to September 1992 of pounds 1.1bn.

Matthew Sutherland, an analyst at the stockbroker NatWest Securities, said Hanson's strategy appeared to be to make bolt-on acquisitions in North America, while it was looking for a larger purchase in a new business area on this side of the Atlantic.

Mr Taylor said: 'We are interested in acquisitions whether they be here or in America.'

Mr Sutherland said the acquisition was an appropriate one for Hanson, but said the apparently low purchase price may be related to the sluggishness of the Californian economy, compared with the rest of the US.

California did well out of the 1980s boom but is taking proportionally more pain in recession. Californian property prices have been particularly vulnerable.

David Clarke, deputy chairman of Hanson Industries, the US arm of the conglomerate, said: 'The acquisition of Watt Housing at an appropriate time in the home-building cycle further expands Hanson's operations in building materials and handling equipment, forest products and home-building, in both the US and the UK, where it has become a major force in the construction industry.'

He estimated that the combined house-building operation would be the twelfth-largest in the US.

Hanson shares, unchanged yesterday at 232p, are at the same level as they were 12 months ago. In the intervening period the stock has sunk to 185p and risen to 262p. Relative to the stock market average Hanson has underperformed by 10 per cent over the past 12 months, but is still 20 per cent ahead over five years.

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