Mystery bidder values Sketchley at pounds 70m

SKETCHLEY shareholders have been approached by Nick Anstee, an accountant in the corporate finance department at Arthur Andersen, seeking their support for a 75p-a-share leveraged buy-out of the dry-cleaning group, according to two individuals close to the situation.

Mr Anstee, who could not be reached for comment, is thought to be representing a venture capital group which, via a financial intermediary, has held on-off talks with Sketchley since last September. Royal Bank of Scotland's venture capital arm is thought to be interested. Electra Fleming, which last year helped engineering group William Cook go private to repel a hostile bid, also ran its slide rule over Sketchley last year and could take a fresh look once again.

Venture capital groups are lining up to launch LBOs for smaller quoted companies in the FT-SE 350, as their shares have seriously lagged behind the performance of bigger stocks.

After a sharp jump in its shares on Friday, Sketchley revealed it had received a takeover approach but told shareholders to take no action. "The approach came from a party that has not convinced Sketchley it has the cash to make an offer under satisfactory conditions," said a spokesman for HSBC Investment Bank, the dry-cleaner's financial adviser.

Sketchley is now definitely in play. Its shares rose a further 12p to 58p on Friday valuing the company at nearly pounds 55m. But the shares are still below the 75p that the mystery bidder is ready to pay.

Sketchley itself announced last July that it was open to offers for its SupaSnaps photo-processing business and the retail dry-cleaning operations. SupaSnaps is thought to be more profitable than retail dry-cleaning.

Chairman John Jackson wanted to concentrate on the wholesale business service business. Around half the group's pounds 158m turnover comes from providing and cleaning workwear for various industries, including airlines.

But Mr Anstee and the mystery parties he represents are likely to have received a warm reception from shareholders, including the Prudential and unit trust group M&G, who are unhappy at the losses the company has run up in its last two financial years.

In June 1996, Sketchley raised nearly pounds 22m via a rights issue at 105p a share. In the following 18 months, its shares plunged to a low of 38.5p.

Copyright: IOS & Bloomberg

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