Bidders circle care homes as Britons age

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The private equity firm 3i and property tycoon Vincent Tchenguiz are among at least six bidders to make offers in the £1.5bn auction for Four Seasons Healthcare, the UK's second-largest nursing-home provider.

Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein is holding the auction on behalf of its sister company, Allianz Capital Partners, which bought Four Seasons two years ago for £775m. Friday was the deadline for informed bids - offers made after suitors are given access to the target's books. It remained unclear, however, whether the group would be sold as a whole or in two separate units, as a property company and an operating company.

Private equity and property investors are showing more interest in consolidating an industry that is set for rapid growth as the UK's population gets older. About one-sixth of Britons, about 10 million people, are 65 years old or over. The top four home providers - Southern Cross, Four Seasons, Bupa and Barchester - control only one third of the market. The remaining 65 per cent is still controlled by husband-and-wife teams or small groups.

Royal Bank of Scotland earlier this month paid £1bn for the property portfolio of Southern Cross, the nation's largest provider, assembled through a series of deals by its owner, Blackstone Group. The buyout firm plans to float the remaining operating company within the next few months at an expected valuation of £500m.

Interest in Four Seasons among property investors is especially keen because most of its revenues come from its property portfolio. The property company Topland said it was interested but declined to say whether it had made a bid.

"We are very acquisitive, we are very liquid, and it is in our sweet spot," a spokesman said.