Hollick set for a buying spree

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United News & Media yesterday set out a new corporate strategy following the sale of the bulk of its television interests. The group is to focus on business services and publishing.

United News & Media yesterday set out a new corporate strategy following the sale of the bulk of its television interests. The group is to focus on business services and publishing.

Lord Hollick, United's chief executive, said the group was looking for acquisitions and alliances to try to fulfil what he termed the group's "Plan B". "All the coverage has been on TV, but we've been quietly setting out our stall in market information.... We are looking at a range of acquisitions."

Last month United abandoned a planned merger with Carlton Communications and in a swift U-turn sold its production and broadcasting assets in ITV to Granada Media for £1.75bn.

Lord Hollick said: "It is with some regret that we didn't succeed in acquiring a leadership position in ITV. You can't be a tail-end Charlie in this game. You are either number one, or you get out."

United reported static pre-tax, pre-exceptional profits of £138m in the half to June.

The group confirmed it was looking to sell most of its remaining TV assets within a year, chiefly its 35 per cent stake in Channel 5, which could be worth £400m. Lord Hollick said: "If someone comes along with a fantastic offer [for Channel 5], we'll consider it." RTL Group, the pan-European broadcaster, has indicated it wants to buy the stake. It already holds 65 per cent of Channel 5.

On ITN, the news provider in which United also has a stake, Lord Hollick said he foresaw a float of the unit some time next year. No disposal of the group's national daily newspaper titles, the Express papers and the Daily Star, was planned.

The remainder of the group consists of the business services division, including PRNewswire, a corporate news distributor, and CMP, a US technology network; the publishing division, which has a range of titles including Exchange & Mart; and online activities, including Xilerate, the group's United European sites.

"We've got big plans and the resources to do it and we start from already established market-leading positions," Lord Hollick said. "These are businesses I've been involved with a lot longer than TV."

The balance sheet can support a buying spree following the Granada deal and non-core disposals worth about £1.3bn. The deals will eliminate United's debt and leave it with about £300m in cash. The aborted Carlton deal cost £19.6m,booked as an exceptional charge.

One analyst said: "They have given a good steer on what they are going to spend their money on, without naming names."

The group said turnover in the half rose 14 per cent to £1.15bn. The businesses United plans to retain account for £650m of that.

The interim dividend was held a 11p a share. The shares yesterday rose 8p to 833p.

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