Market Report: Forte steps up chase for French hotels group

FORTE, the hotel group expected to produce disappointing results on Thursday, is thought to have intensified its efforts to acquire Meridien, the upmarket hotel group being sold by its controlling shareholder, Air France.

It is believed to have increased its bid sharply to around pounds 220m, comfortably topping the known offer from the entrenched favourite, the Accor holiday and hotel group.

But Accor, which has flavoured its bid with promises of holiday deals following a US link-up, remains the favourite to win the battle if only because of the nationalistic attitude of the French.

Forte's desire to absorb a luxury hotel group was highlighted by its determined, but ultimately unsuccessful, campaign to win Ciga, the debt-heavy Italian group created by the Aga Khan.

Rocco Forte, the group's chairman, had teamed with the international investor George Soros to bid for Ciga. In the event they found a late offer from the US Sheraton hotel chain too rich to accommodate. There has as yet been no suggestion of a Soros involvement in the Forte move to capture Meridien, which is 57 per cent owned by Air France.

Yesterday was believed to be the last day for Meridien. According to reports from Paris, Forte is regarded as the up bidder followed by Accor. A German group, Kempinski, is also in the running.

The pursuit of Ciga and now Meridien can be seen in relation to Forte's attempts to increase its involvement in the Savoy Hotel group, where it has a majority shareholding but fewer than half the votes.

Rumours have swirled that Mr Forte has attempted to increase his boardroom strength and wants to pump Forte's upmarket hotels into the Savoy to give him voting control.

If he should fail to win Meridien, talk in the industry is that he will turn its attention to Four Seasons, a luxury Canadian group thought to be receptive to a bid.

On Thursday Forte profits are expected to be about pounds 90m. In 1990 it produced pounds 291m. The group has attempted to counter deteriorating hotel trading by selling a number of operations, including Alpha Airports, an in-flight and airport caterer, and Gardner Merchant, an industrial catering business.

Mr Forte has made it clear the new-look group will concentrate on hotels and motorway catering. Its shares, weak lately, were little changed at 236p.

The rest of the stock market started the new account in ebullient form with the FT-SE 100 index up 28.6 to 3,149.4. Dividend payments stripped 5.4 from the calculation.

An upbeat review of economic prospects, encouraging Whitehall lending figures and a feeling that the market is settling down after recent volatility combined to produce a much more enthusiastic atmosphere, although trading volume offered no indication of any serious resumption of buying demand from institutions and private investors.

Interest rate hopes also resurfaced ahead of the Bundesbank meeting on Thursday. Any German reduction would reawaken hopes of a British cut. Government stocks joined in, scoring gains of up to pounds 1.

Talk of cheaper money was good for interest rate-sensitive stocks such as properties. But the bricks and mortar contingent was also helped by bullish comments from a number of quarters, including Lloyds Bank and S G Warburg. And Goldman Sachs got in on the act by pushing Land Securities, up 22p at 657p.

Builders, breweries and retailers were others to enjoy the interest rate revival.

Hogg, the insurance broker, put on another 4p to 215p as it became known that funds associated with the HSBC banking group had 1.26 per cent of the capital.

It was the creation of a 6 per cent stake by an HSBC insurance arm which provoked the share excitement, prompting Hogg to reveal that it has received approaches, one from the HSBC group.

Grand Metropolitan, helped by NatWest Securities' support and continuing chatter of a break-up of its controversial Inntrepreneur pubs estate, advanced 11p to 481p. Whitbread continued to benefit from Kleinwort Benson support, up 16p to 539p.

Newcomer St James Beach Hotel made an impressive start, reaching 133p from a 120p launch.

The absorption of a persistent seller left Cadbury Schweppes 3p higher at 480p and Reuters, ahead of today's meeting, rose 42p to 1,969p.

Beazer, one of the crop of new issue flops, managed to top its 165p flotation price. It scored from the much more favourable atmosphere surrounding builders and some determined support from Smith New Court.

Brown & Jackson, the Poundstretcher retail chain being rescued by the Weisfeld family, was the day's most actively traded and best-performing share. Seaq put volume at 37 million and the price rose 1.5p to 4.5p.

Owen & Robinson, the revamped jewellery retailer that has struggled back into the black, rose 1p to 31p. Talk persists that a well-known retailer is negotiating to buy a stake. One suggestion is that Philip Green, former chief of Amber Day (now WEW), would take a 15.8 per cent interest. But the board is thought to be negotiating with another, as yet unidentified, party.

Regent Corporation, a revitalised builder which emerged as one of the top performing shares of last year, is already bidding for a top place this year. The shares rose 3p to 37.5p as the market scented that another deal would be announced soon. Once called Waverley Cameron and then Nouvelle, the company has already acquired a number of small builders.

The FT-SE 100 index opened the account with a 28.6-point gain to 3,149.4; the FT-SE 250 index rose 24 to 3,779.5. Turnover was 602.3 million shares with 27,695 bargains. The account ends on 22 April with settlement on 3 May.

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