Dutch owner puts Williams de Broë up for sale

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Williams de Broë, one of the oldest names in City stockbroking, may soon be under fresh ownership.

Its Dutch parent ING is sounding out potential buyers, and is understood to have issued memoranda of sale to at least half a dozen interested parties.

They are thought to include the investment bank Evolution Group, Iceland's Kaupthing, which owns the Singer & Friedlander merchant bank, and Jon Moulton's private-equity business, Alchemy Partners.

The process is believed to be in the early stages, with no deal likely until June at the earliest.

Williams de Broë is expected to fetch about £30m, after a string of well-publicised problems. Last year, ING was forced to set aside £56m against a black hole in the 137-year-old broker's accounts.

The accountancy firm Deloitte was called in to pick through the books and Williams De Broë's chief executive, John Miller, and its chief operating officer, David Whistance, were suspended.

Richard Charnock, a former executive at Lloyds TSB bank and head of private client investment at the broker, took charge. Since then, a rash of key staff have left including the head of corporate finance and Nick Sperring, its head of institutional sales. Mr Sperring's replacement, Adrian Barwick, resigned this week.

Evolution, one of the potential buyers, owns the Christow's private client business, which manages the finances of the wealthy. This could be merged with Williams de Broë's private client arm, which is widely seen as the jewel in its crown, if a deal between the two goes through.

Results from Evolution this week were impressive, with annual pre-tax profits rising 33 per cent to £63.6m.

The chief executive, Alex Snow, promised to return some of the £138m spare cash to shareholders by buying back Evolution shares. Part could be used to snap up Williams de Broë. Another potential buyer, Alchemy, owns 30 per cent of the broker Seymour Pierce. Since it backed a management buyout led by the chairman, Keith Harris, in April 2003, the value of its holding has rocketed amid a booming market in London for smaller companies.

Mr Moulton, it is said, had long coveted Williams de Broë. In 2001, Alchemy discussed financing a management buyout of the firm, which failed to proceed.

Meanwhile, Kaupthing, which snapped up Singer & Friedlander for £547m almost a year ago, has long been hunting for a broking business in London. Numis, WH Ireland, Close Brothers, Evolution and the market-making and research divisions of Shore Capital are all said to have caught its eye in the past.

ING has owned Williams de Broë since 1998, when it swallowed Banque Bruxelles Lambert. The Belgian bank had held a stake in the City stockbroker since 1984.