South Africans to sell off Ansbacher for £100m

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The Independent Online

Ansbacher Group, the UK merchant bank with a colourful past, has been put up for sale by its South African owner, FirstRand, at around £100m.

The bank became part of FirstRand five years ago as a result of a merger. It has been losing money and FirstRand, a retail bank, has come under fire for its ownership. Laurie Dippenaar, chief executive of FirstRand, admitted Ansbacher was on the block, saying: "We are evaluating a range of possibilities for the business, including finding a strategic partner who can facilitate and support Ansbacher's international expansion plans."

The Ansbacher Group is made up of two main operations: the London-based merchant bank Henry Ansbacher; and an offshore operation with branches in the Channel Islands, Cayman Islands and other locations. Not included in the sale are Ansbacher's fund management businesses.

Both operations up for sale have been at the centre of controversies. The former head of Henry Ansbacher's corporate finance operation, Lord Spens, was charged with various offences related to the illegal share-support operation at Guinness when it bid for Distillers in the 1980s. The case against him was dropped when co-defendant Roger Seelig was deemed unfit to face trial.

Ansbacher (Cayman) was at the centre of a tax evasion scandal in Ireland which came to the fore earlier this year in a detailed report by investigators. This referred to events in the early 1980s - before Ansbacher bought the business from rival bank Guinness Mahon. As a result of the report, the Irish tax authorities are suing Ansbacher for €3.6m (£2.5m) to cover the costs of the inquiry.

FirstRand has said it will support Ansbacher's management in the case and that the litigation will have no bearing on the sell-off process.

Ansbacher becomes the second City merchant bank to go on the block. Last month Leopold Joseph, which claims the Rolling Stones among its clients, was put up for sale by its management. It is said to be worth about £40m.