Ladbroke calls to arms

LADBROKE, the beleaguered hotels-to-betting group, has been shoring up its defences, following bid speculation and its November profits warning.

The group has sent out Section 212 notices, a legal device to penetrate nominee accounts and establish the beneficial owners of shares. "Ladbroke has prepared itself for any eventuality," a senior company source said.

Takeover talk gripped the shares last week, pushing them up from 143p to a high of 160p, before closing at 156p on Friday.

Most interest focused on the brewer Bass, which was tipped to announce a bid on Wednesday, when it unveiled sparkling full-year figures, up 11 per cent to pounds 599m. No bid materialised, though Bass side-stepped questions about its intentions, pure or otherwise. But sources close to Ladbroke said a bid from that quarter would have been unlikely, given Bass's traditionally unaggressive style.

Analysts have since downplayed the speculation, saying a bid and the subsequent break-up of the group would face serious challenges.

However, the City regards a bid for Ladbroke as a profitable move for the right company. But there are some obstacles a bidder must surmount, not least Ladbroke's original business: its betting shops. In addition, the Hilton hotel brand is split - California-based Hilton Hotels Corp owns the rights in the US.

One effect of the takeover talk has been to boost Ladbroke's flagging shares. At a recent meeting of the Stock Exchange committee to decide new entrants into the FT-SE 100 index of leading blue-chip companies, Ladbroke was capitalised as the 118th largest company. Fortuitously, the bid talk emerged in time for it to escape the ignominy of expulsion from the index, and the consequent sale of shares by index tracker funds.

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