The founder of Go Compare, the price comparison website fronted by the fictitious opera singer Gio Compario, has appointed advisers to look at selling the business.
Hayley Parsons has hired the accounting firm Grant Thornton to conduct a strategic review of the company, valued at £500m which she launched in 2006. The self-confessed "Welsh girl from the valleys" is understood to have decided to work out her options ahead of the planned stock-market flotation of the motor insurer Esure, which owns 49 per cent of Go Compare.
Esure, which was famously fronted by Michael Winner in its television adverts, has publicly stated that it has "no plans to increase its stake" in Go Compare. However, one well-placed source said the company has not ruled out bringing it into the fold ahead of its £1bn listing next year.
Esure's founder, Peter Wood, is known to have held meetings with Ms Parsons over the past few months to discuss the subject. Alternative suitors for the business could include its listed rival, Moneysupermarket.com, or private-equity firms, although insiders say Ms Parsons favours buying out Esure's stake.
The 38-year-old, who received an OBE for services to the economy in the New Year's Honours list, holds a 23 per cent stake in the company valued at more than £100m. The remainder is held by staff and other small shareholders.
In an interview in June, she said: "Go Compare is my baby. It is my business." Her comments came after the group reported pre-tax profit of £34.7m for 2011, up 15 per cent on the previous 12 months. This saw Ms Parsons pick up £3.2m in dividends, while Esure received £6.8m.
A sale or buyout of Go Compare would come at a pivotal time for the business, which operates in one of the most competitive marketplaces in the UK. As well as Go Compare and Moneysupermarket.com, Confused.com and Comparethemarket.com are also big players in a sector targeted by the internet search giant Google in recent years.
Go Compare's future could also have a significant bearing on Esure's listing. The motor insurer has appointed Deutsche Bank and J P Morgan to oversee its flotation.
Bankers expect this to value the company at nearly four times the £270m it was worth when Lloyds Banking Group sold a controlling 70 per cent stake in the firm two years ago. Analysts say a combined Esure and Go Compare could be a more attractive investment to City institutions.
Go Compare declined to comment.