Harris hangs 'for sale' sign on Seymour Pierce

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The Independent Online

Keith Harris, the former chairman of the Football League, is said to have been looking into a sale of Seymour Pierce, the broker he heads, since early this year.

Intermediaries - corporate financial advisers who facilitate deals - approached one potential buyer towards the end of last month to test its appetite for the broker. There was none.

A City source said Mr Harris had indicated privately towards the end of April he was in talks to sell the business, and completion of the deal was not far away.

Since then, stock markets have tumbled, business has dwindled for smaller brokers, and their value has been hit.

Mr Harris is said to want up to £150m for a business bought for £7.5m less than three years ago. Industry experts say Seymour Pierce is unlikely to fetch more than £50m.

Kaupthing, the Icelandic bank that owns Singer & Friedlander, and the American investment bank, Jefferies, are seen as the most likely buyers. In the past, Jefferies has looked at the rival London brokers Numis Securities, Panmure Gordon and Bridgewell Securities.

Macquarie, the acquisitive Australian investment bank that tried to buy the London Stock Exchange, is also known to have run the slide rule over Seymour Pierce about nine months ago.

Mr Harris insisted yesterday he was unaware of any approaches made to potential buyers and said none had been made on his behalf. "I have not appointed anyone to sell us. We have not even been in talks. I'm the senior shareholder, I would know," he said.

However, several senior City sources said intermediaries such as Hawkpoint and Fenchurch Advisory trade off reputations and were highly unlikely to have made unsolicited approaches.

Mr Harris led the management buyout of Seymour Pierce on his 50th birthday on 11 April 2003, investing £1.25m of his own cash. He owns 16 per cent of the company. John Moulton's private equity group, Alchemy Partners, holds 30 per cent, the entrepreneur, Nigel Wray, controls 4 per cent, and Seymour Pierce's 100 staff speak for the rest.

The company has about 140 corporate clients and can claim to act for more companies on AIM than any other broker.

Mr Harris forged his career in investment banking and is credited with importing stock market capitalism into the football boardroom.

He was the youngest director of the investment bank Morgan Grenfell in its heyday before the infamous Guinness scandal, and ran a big European division of Drexel Burnham Lambert before starting his own corporate finance boutique with the backing of venture capital.

In 1994, he was headhunted to run Samuel Montague, the merchant bank owned by Midland, which had been swallowed by HSBC. Mr Harris was tasked with the integration of Montague with the stockbroker James Capel.

His track record in football finance includes advising the former Chelsea chairman, Ken Bates, on the club's sale to Roman Abramovich. He also advised Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB on its blocked £623m bid for Manchester United.

Within the City, there has been a flurry of recent activity among stockbrokers. Terry Smith, the chief executive of Collins Stewart Tullett, finally revealed plans to split the company in two.

Bridgewell Securities is pressing ahead with its long-awaited flotation, despite unsettled stock markets. It is expected to continue marketing the business until the middle of next week.

This month, Evolution Group agreed to pay £15m for the troubled Williams de Broë from its Dutch parent, ING. Last year, ING was forced to set aside £5.6m against a black hole in the 137-year-old broker's accounts. The accountancy firm, Deloitte, was called in to investigate, and Williams de Broë's chief executive, John Miller, and its chief operating officer, David Whistance, were suspended.