Whitehead Mann shares soar as potential suitors line up

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The Independent Online

Shareholders in the UK's largest executive-search company, Whitehead Mann, were finally given something to smile about yesterday, as the company said that it has received a number of approaches that may lead to an bid. The shares shot up to 166p from 136p, but still some way short of the 366p they were changing hands for in January.

Shareholders in the UK's largest executive-search company, Whitehead Mann, were finally given something to smile about yesterday, as the company said that it has received a number of approaches that may lead to an bid. The shares shot up to 166p from 136p, but still some way short of the 366p they were changing hands for in January.

A disastrous year has seen the company dismiss its chief executive, Stephen Lawrence, one week after issuing a shock profit warning in October. The group has also in effect closed its US business and lost face over its role in the ultimately aborted attempt to install Sir Ian Prosser as chairman of J Sainsbury.

Analysts said it was likely that the relatively small premium priced in by the market is a sign that any bidder knows it will have a tough task on its hands. Hector Forsythe, at Evolution Beeson Gregory, said: "This has to be an agreed deal. Speed is of the essence if Whitehead Mann is to hang on to its key assets - its people."

In spite of the setbacks the company has faced since the departure of its founder Anna Mann, it remains the dominant player in the UK executive-search industry. Half of the FTSE 100 use the company for executive-search, a large enough number for any potential suitor to overlook recent problems.

For many shareholders news of a possible bid, though better than most of what they have had to endure in 2004, may only bring a wry smile to faces. Graham Neale, the head of research at the stockbroker Killik & Co, said that "any increase in an offer, if one comes at all, will depend upon the acquirer believing that current trading is better than it was in the summer".

Whitehead Mann is due to give a trading statement to the market next Thursday.

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