Thorntons reveals assortment of new bids

Thorntons, the family-owned chocolate maker, yesterday revealed it had a melting pot of potential bidders for the £100m-plus company.

The bidders have surfaced after the company said its management was seeking to take the company private. But the independent directors at Thorntons yesterday said they had now received a number of new approaches not connected to the management team. They are thought to be from both private equity groups and rival confectioners.

One non-executive director, John Jackson, said the management buyout team had yet to put in any kind of indicative offer. Richard Ratner, an analyst at Seymour Pierce, said the board was unlikely to consider a bid below 180p a share, which would value the business at £120m. Thornton's shares rose 3p to 160.5p yesterday, their highest for nearly four years.

Earlier this month the board rejected a tentative offer from a private equity house. Plans to take the company private have faced strong opposition from one major shareholder, the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. Its trustees are concerned the company appears too willing to go private while the share price remains low.

Mr Jackson sought to assure shareholders yesterday that while the independent directors support the management, the board will only recommend an offer that is in the best interests of the company. "Our job is to make sure we maximise value for shareholders," he said. "We will consider every offer whether it is from a plc or a private company."

The Thorntons family, which owns a 29 per cent stake, is set to pocket £35m from a deal.

Thorntons yesterday told shareholders it had seen some improvement in trading over the past month. Its profits have stagnated after the very hot summer, which slowed sales of its chocolate products, and management is focusing on the Christmas trading period.

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