Ladbroke eyes Hilton acquisitions

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Ladbroke might buy part of Hilton Hotels Corporation if - as is widely expected - it is broken up.

Peter George, the chief executive of Ladbroke, which has the rights to the Hilton name outside America, said yesterday: "If Hilton is sold in the United States there may well be an opportunity for us to get involved in that in some way."

The US group, which has more than 280 hotels and several casinos, is worth more than $3.5bn (£2.3bn).

That is about £400m more than the stock market valuation of Ladbroke, which runs 160 Hilton International hotels.

Mr George, however, sought to allay investors' fears that he would significantly add to Ladbroke's £1.2bn of debts, which will soon be reduced when the £290m cheque from Sainsbury's purchase of Texas Homecare is banked.

"We don't want to put a lot of investment in hotel real estate. Our business is in managing hotels," he said.

Ladbroke owns or has long leases on only one-third of its hotels.

Ladbroke's strategy, while not being set in stone, is clearly focused on running on two legs - hotels and gaming.

Following the sale of Texas Homecare, the company is poised to lose its £600m property limb over the next 18 months to two years.

"We have said to ourselves and the outside world that we are in the gaming and hotel businesses.

"However, we haven't completed our internal deliberations on what we are going to do with the gaming business," Mr George said.

Yesterday's lifting by the Government of the television advertising ban on football pools companies will help the fight against the threat from the National Lottery.

Ladbroke is still waiting for approval of gaming licences that came with last year's £50m purchase of three London casinos, ending its 15-year enforced absence from operating roulette wheels and blackjack tables.

A senior analyst commented yesterday: "The Texas sale cures a large management headache. The easy work has been done, but Ladbroke now faces a greater test of management skills when it tries to take its gaming expertise overseas."

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