Former lastminute finance boss to float holiday company on AIM

Western & Oriental, where Mr Howell is executive chairman, has raised about £4.5m by placing shares with big City investors through the investment bank Evolution Group. That values the company at about £9.5m and gives W&O more than £11m with which to mop up rivals.

W&O is a luxury travel specialist, offering high-end trips to destinations such as India and South Africa for tens of thousands of pounds.

Mr Howell is looking to make acquisitions to consolidate a fragmented luxury travel sector under the W&O umbrella.

While at lastminute.com, he presided over a dramatic acquisitions spree that saw it swallow 14 companies across Europe including Med Hotels, Gemstone Travel, Holiday Autos and First Option.

Mr Howell said: "Nobody's tried to consolidate the luxury holiday sector. If you look over the past 10 years, I made a lot of acquisitions in the holiday sector. W&O is a natural fit for my skills set."

Two deals unveiled this month - the takeover of Ranch America for up to £1.9m and of the London Docklands-based tour operator Lynton Cooper for up £400,000 - complete on Monday too.

Ranch America, based near Watford, gives city slickers the chance to play at cowboys, roping cattle on so-called "dude ranches" for £2,500 a week. Lynton Cooper owns the See The American Dream and See The Hawaiian Dream travel brands.

Mr Howell, it is said, has already teed up three further deals to be done in as many months.

His aim is to build the group for three years, then take stock of its options. Mr Howell would not rule out a sale of the business.

W&O was founded by Alan Judd, who also helped set up Online Travel Corporation. The managing director is Ian Neale, who joined in 2003 and has 27 years in the sector.

Mr Howell owns about 4 per cent of the company, which he joined in December, five months after selling lastminute.com to America's Sabre Holdings, the owner of the Travelocity website. That sale netted him £1.5m, some of which he has sunk into W&O. Sales were £21m last year, when W&O broke even.

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