Blue Circle escapes Lafarge's clutches

Blue Circle Industries, the cement producer, yesterday pulled off a remarkable escape from the clutches of Lafarge, the French group that had made a £3.65bn hostile bid.

At the close of the offer yesterday, Lafarge held, or had acceptances, for only 44.5 per cent of Blue Circle shares, short of the required 50 per cent plus one share.

Rick Haythornthwaite, Blue Circle's chief executive, said: "We were lucky with the swing in sentiment back in favour of Old Economy stocks. And people believed the strategy we put forward in our defence."

He said that a series of declarations by Blue Circle's institutional shareholders, that they were not going to accept the offer, had also helped.

"The shareholders who backed us took a courageous and bold decision. They were saying that they were not willing to accept a cheeky bid. There will be a lot of Old Economy chief executives out there who are going to view this outcome with pleasure."

Analysts believe that Lafarge took a risk at offering just 439p a share, a level regarded as a low-ball bid. Most said that Lafarge needed to offer at least 470p a share to have been certain of success.

However, when Lafarge bought 20 per cent of Blue Circle in the market on 19 April and its advisers, Dresdner Kleinwort Benson picked up another 9.6 per cent, many analysts predicted that it was in an unassailable position. Its offer was cash and cement is a deeply unfashionable sector.

But that was before some of Blue Circle's institutional shareholders, led by Schroder Asset Management, said publically that they would reject the offer.

Over the course of its defence, Blue Circle said that its Asian operations were improving, it launched an £800m share buyback and revamped its property portfolio.

Yesterday, DKB, the financial advisers to Lafarge said that the bid had failed because there was a perception in the market that the offer was "mean" - a claim that it denied.

Despite the bid's failure Lafarge still owns almost 30 per cent of Blue Circle. A Lafarge spokesman said that the company had not decided what to do with the stake.

Mr Hathornthwaite said that the large Lafarge shareholding would make no difference to the way that Blue Circle is run.

Mark Hake, an analyst at Merrill Lynch, said "The bid's failure was a function of price. Blue Circle's defence also improved. Given what Blue Circle said it could do if it remained independent, Lafarge was not offering enough money."

He said that Lafarge could sit on its Blue Circle holding and come back in a year with another bid.

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