Keith Howard, who was part of Hands's team until last summer, when he moved to Nikko, the Japanese finance house, yesterday won the bidding war for Roadchef, the motorway services group
Nikko bid pounds 175m for the business, including pounds 35m of debt. The offer values the 63-per-cent stake held by Tim Ingram-Hill, Roadchef's chairman and chief executive, at pounds 88m. Nikko's late bid, which was negotiated over the weekend and signed on Monday, trumped an earlier offer from Nomura. The Japanese group is understood to have thought it was negotiating exclusively with Roadchef, and had also been hoping to sign the deal on Monday.
Industry sources said Nomura reduced its offer by pounds 10m to pounds 169m after an environmental report showed that petrol from two of Roadchef's service stations was leaking into the water table. The bank is also believed to have been concerned by some of Roadchef's accounting policies.
But Nikko denied the suggestion that Roadchef's environmental standards were not up to scratch. "I can categorically say that's not true," Mr Howard said, adding that Nikko's own environmental report gave Roadchef "a clean bill of health". Asked about his rivalry with his former boss, Mr Howard said: "There's nothing wrong with a bit of good friendly competition."
An adviser to Roadchef said Mr Hands was upset at not winning the battle. "Nomura thought they had won it but they screwed up. They were complacent in the way they handled the deal. Now Guy is trying to use the press to get his own back."
Mr Hands has been one of the most successful deal-makers of recent years, masterminding acquisitions which, among others, turned Nomura into the country's largest pub landlord. Using cheap debt backed by the bank's sound credit rating, he was able to outbid industry buyers for assets such as Inntrepreneur, the pub estate owned by Bass and Fosters, and William Hill, the chain of bookmakers. The deal represents a fantastic return for Roadchef's management team, many of whom have been with the company since it was formed through a management buyout in 1983.
Mr Ingram-Hill, 48, joined the business as personnel director in 1979 and rose to become chief executive in 1988. He is credited with turning it into the country's third- largest motorway service station group, operating from 12 sites.
Mr Ingram-Hill and his fellow directors will continue to run the company after the takeover, and will trade in some of their shareholding for shares in the new company. Mr Howard said that Nikko was intending to invest for the long term, and would give Roadchef's management the financial support they needed to expand the business.
Service stations have proved popular with financial buyers in recent years. Investcorp, the Bahrain-based investment group, last year shocked the City with its winning pounds 476m bid for Welcome Break, the motorway service business which Granada was forced to sell following its takeover of Forte, the hotel group.