Domecq trumps rival bid for Lehmann's

Allied Domecq yesterday raised the tempo in the takeover battle for Peter Lehmann Wines of Australia, relaxing the conditions for its A$149.2m (£61.1m) bid and trumping a rival offer from Switzerland's Hess.

The UK group is persevering with its takeover attempt in the face of vociferous opposition from the Australian company's eponymous founder. Peter Lehmann, the winemaker who founded the group in 1978, has bluntly dismissed Allied's offer, refusing to sell his 10.1 per cent stake in the group.

Although Mr Lehmann is no longer on the Australian group's board, he has criticised the company's independent directors for backing an earlier bid from Allied, calling for their dismissal. Allied will have to wait to see whether its latest offer will persuade Peter Lehmann's directors to change their current recommendation from the Swiss company, Hess, back to the UK company.

Hess won the directors' approval after it matched Allied's previous bid of A$3.85 per share and promised to allow shareholders to retain the group's 5.5 cent-per-share final dividend.

Allied, which fought Australian brewer Lion Nathan for control of New Zealand's Montana two years ago, said its $4 per share offer was conditional on acquiring at least 51 per cent of Peter Lehmann's shares. Previously, its higher offer was only available if it was accepted by more than 90 per cent of shareholders - impossible in the face of Mr Lehmann's hostility.

The UK group, which has bought winemakers as far afield as Spain and Argentina, plans to oust Peter Lehmann's board - including Doug Lehmann, the managing director and son of the founder - if its offer succeeds. Philip Bowman, Allied's chief executive, said he was convinced that it was "far more desirable for Peter Lehmann's shareholders to achieve an attractive price for all of their shares.... than to accept partially the Hess offer and be locked in as minority holders in a company controlled by a privately-owned group".

A spokesman added that if Mr Lehmann senior declined to sell his stake he would be "treated like any other shareholder". Allied will only de-list the company from the Australian stock market if it acquires more than 90 per cent of the shares.