Key bidders emerge as sale of The Mill gathers pace

Bidders are lining up for The Mill, the TV production company behind special effects in Doctor Who and Nike's World Cup adverts with its owners hoping to agree a deal before the end of April.

The process is through to the second round with information memorandums sent to the shortlist of up to seven bidders this month. Management presentations are due to start this week.

It is understood that there has been strong interest from private equity companies, with US group Ascent believed to be among the frontrunners. Providence Equity Partners is also thought to have run a slide-rule over a possible approach.

Sources close to the process said there had been "a lot of interest" in the company which also has operations in New York and Los Angeles. Its expansion in the US has made it particularly attractive to buyout companies based in the country. "This has gone far and wide," one banker working on a bid said. "There's a lot of interest partly because it is a strong company and partly because there's not a lot else out there."

Despite early interest from WPP, the advertising giant is no longer in the running, and another buyout group Apax, which was expected to bid, has ruled itself out.

Carlyle Equity Partners, the US private equity group which owns a majority stake in The Mill, effectively put it up for sale in November, when it called in investment bank advisory house Harris Williams to carry out a strategic review of the business.

At the time it hoped the sale would value The Mill at £150m, but the banker believes the price will be closer to £100m. He continued: "They are trying to make the process as quick as possible. But a time scale of six weeks looks ambitious."

The advisers are understood to be currently in talks with banks who would finance a private equity bid.

The Mill makes the bulk of its revenues through advertising work. Along with Nike's Write the Future ads, it also masterminded Honda's Impossible Dream and has been involved in 20 superbowl spots. It also provides special effects for TV shows, music videos and computer games.

Carlyle bought a 60 per cent stake in The Mill in 2007 which valued the company at £50m after it backed a management buyout from previous owners 3i, a rival private equity company. It invested predicting that the market place for high-end video advertising was set to soar.

The Mill was set up in 1990 and investors included rock group U2 and film director Ridley Scott. It won an Oscar for the visual effects it produced for Gladiator, directed by Mr Scott.

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