MAM says new owner must have a light touch

Hugh Stevenson, chairman of Mercury Asset Management, warned yesterday that any potential new partner seeking to replace Warburg as an owner of MAM would have to be "hands-off . . . with a light touch".

Mr Stevenson acknowledged the fevered speculation over MAM's future following the Swiss Banking Corporation deal with Warburg. He insisted that MAM is "looking forward to life as a fully independent company with every confidence".

He said there had been no formal approaches so far by a potential bidder. That would force MAM to make an official announcement, he said. He added, however: "If we have had an informal approach, we would be unable to comment on it.

"This business has succeeded because Warburg have been very, very good owners of it. They have let the management get on with it. It is vital that our fund managers make their investment decisions solely in the interests of the client, and nothing else. It would be absolutely basic to any relationship with anybody else to preserve that."

Mr Stevenson said that businesses like MAM had to be owned "with a fairly light touch. Clients have to see that their interests are paramount to us."

The chairman refused to comment on persistent rumours that NatWest Bank and the US broker Smith Barney are both interested in buying MAM.

Some analysts have suggested the "hands off" approach would better suit an American owner, such as Smith Barney or Merrill Lynch, since a management in New York would be further removed from MAM than a UK owner.

Mr Stevenson said: "This is not necessarily so. We are perfectly happy on our own, but we are honour-bound to look at any proposal put to us.We would consider what quality of people thay have, what they can offer our business, and what the relationship would be."

He said only two things had changed following the proposed £860m acquisition of Warburg by SBC. "Firstly we have a new institutional share register. Clearly this will raise our profile. Secondly we will no longer be able to use the Warburg name overseas. The £35m special dividend to MAM (under the SBC deal) is compensation for that loss."

"We won't change our strategy or the way we go about it."

MAM now has £63bn of funds under managment and made profits of £111m last year.

Mr Stevenson admitted that MAM would be able to expand more quickly with a suitable new partner. On the other hand, he said, "We're not short of opportunities. This really is a growth industry."

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