Knutsford targets e-commerce opportunities in strategic shift

Knutsford, the high-profile acquisition vehicle supported by Archie Norman, has been forced to abandon plans for a retail deal following the former Asda's chairman promotion to the Tory front bench.

Nigel Wray, Knutsford's chairman, said yesterday it had ditched its much publicised ambitions for a big retail acquisition. It is looking instead at e-commerce. "With Archie on board at that time, it made a special case for us to do a retail deal. That's no longer true," Mr Wray said. "We have widened the search. The retail area made a great deal of sense while Archie Norman was able to commit 100 per cent in running it but, with his elevation to the Tory front bench, he can't do the legwork.

"The e-commerce field is clearly very interesting. We are not so interested in a start-up but in a 'real' business with serious internet potential - a company with some industrial or commercial grounding which has e-commerce potential."

Mr Normanhad been expected to become chairman of Knutsford after spearheading a retail deal that was expected to feature a big high-street name. Marks & Spencer, J Sainsbury and Storehouse were touted as possible targets. However, he was appointed in February as the Conservative spokesman for transport, the environment and the regions.

Knutsford has not ruled out approaching a quoted company but an unquoted acquisition is thought to be more likely.

Knutsford said its new e-commerce plan was at an early stage but it was confident of pulling off a deal. It is looking at two opportunities worth £50-100m each, which could be bought with its shares.

The company's shares yesterday closed at 94p, down 6p, valuing it at £258.5m. The shares traded as high as 270p last November, after Mr Norman, Mr Wray, Nick Leslau and Julian Richer converted it from an obscure leather company into a takeover vehicle. In January, the US private-equity group Kohlberg Kravis Roberts trumped Knutsford's bid to buy Wassall, the mini-conglomerate.