Littlewoods sets up separate business and leisure boards

LITTLEWOODS confirmed yesterday that it is setting up separate boards for its leisure and retail businesses, but denied this was preparatory to selling its ailing pools interests or floating the group.

The move led to speculation that Littlewoods may be planning a full demerger and the sale of its gaming businesses.

"It is pure speculation," said a Littlewoods spokeswoman. "We are absolutely not marketing or selling our leisure business; we are investing pounds 21m in leisure, launching new business initiatives and giving it the right management focus." On flotation, which some analysts predict for 12 months from now, she said: "It is not on our agenda."

The creation of a new board for Littlewoods Leisure follows a strategic rethink led by Barry Gibson, group chief executive, which concluded that the pools business addresses a different market to the retail side. The decision was also prompted by the reduction in Pool Betting Duty at the last budget.

Mr Gibson has hired Roger Withers, former managing director of Coral and now chairman of Bass Leisure South Africa, as a non-executive chairman for Littlewoods Leisure.

The leisure side includes the football pools and betting businesses as well as scratchcards. It has struggled since the National Lottery was launched five years ago. Pools takings are down by about a fifth on the year and the workforce has been cut by about 75 per cent to 1,000.

Mr Gibson and Colin Thwaite, managing director of Littlewoods Leisure since 1994, will also sit on the new board. Mr Thwaite, retiring in June 2000, will be responsible for developing the leisure side to operate as a "wholly owned subsidiary".

Other board appointments from within Littlewoods Leisure include Stephen Taylor from Bet Direct, Jeremy Collis from Pools & Lotteries, Gary Speakman from Finance and Richard Younger from IT.

Littlewoods is fully owned by the Moores family. Flotation of the Liverpool- based company would create tax complications for the family.

The retail side includes the revived catalogue operation and the stores business.