Northumbrian Water has received a formal cash offer from the Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing valuing the company at £2.4bn, sending the stock up more than 5 per cent to 447.7p.
Mr Li's Cheung Kong Infrastructure Holdings (CKI) has made a revised indicative proposal of 465p a share – a 21 per cent premium to the closing price before the talks went public earlier this month.
In response, Northumbrian has opened its books to CKI for "a limited period", although the company stressed that there was still "no certainty that any offer will be made" and CKI has reserved the right to offer a lower price if the Northumbrian board agrees.
The proposal also leaves Northumbrian Water shareholders entitled to a net final dividend of 9.57p a share.
CKI is already a big player in the British infrastructure sector, having paid £5.8bn for the electricity giant EDF's power networks last year, adding to holdings in power stations and gas networks. It also owns stakes in Southern Water and Cambridge Water, but has pledged to sell the latter ahead of any mandatory offer to avoid competition issues.
The octogenarian Mr Li – known as "superman" in his native Hong Kong – started out labouring in a plastics factory and now owns companies making up 15 per cent of the market capitalisation of the Hong Kong stock exchange. His sprawling Hutchison Whampoa and Cheung Kong conglomerates are involved in everything from property to retail to container terminals to telecoms.
CKI's interest in Northumbrian Water caused some controversy when it surfaced earlier this month. After several days of confusion about an offer, a local MP, Kevan Jones, criticised the group for leaving Northumbrian Water's 3,000 staff "in the dark" about their futures, while others worried that a takeover could endanger much-needed private sector jobs in the region.